It’s often the case that there are several productions of the same Shakespeare play around at the same time. I saw the Globe production of Richard III on 29th September after seeing the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) production develop over the summer from its first previews in March until the final performance in September.
The RSC production took a minimalist approach to staging and which made use of light bulbs that descended to indicate a character was about to die. The costumes suggested that the RSC production had a modern setting, but the inclusion of armour and the sword fight at the end added a timeless element. On the other hand, the Globe production was an original practice performance. It attempted to represent some of the playing conditions on the original Globe with male actors playing female parts and the audience sitting in the boxes above the stage. The result of this was a visually stunning production with bright dynamic colours and rich textures.
What was striking when seeing the productions around the same time was the very different approaches to Richard that Mark Rylance at the Globe and Jonjo O’Neill at the RSC took. Where O’Neill bustled on stage, Rylance, in contrast, bumbled as if surprised at finding himself in the middle of a play. If Antony Sher was the bottled spider and Simon Russell Beale was the bunch backed toad, then Rylance was more like a hedgehog. O’Neill did not take the approach of basing his physical appearance on bestial imagery and played Richard with a slight limp and unexaggerated hump. His Richard was like a moody youth, who did what he did because he could. One example of this was bawling at Buckingham (Brian Ferguson) that he was not in the giving ‘ vein’ (4.3.105) and storming off stage in a sulk when Buckingham requests his rewards for his support. O’Neill’s showman Richard developed through the run, playing with the audience, acknowledging an audience member’s sneeze with a ‘bless you’ and directing ‘was ever woman in this humour won’ (1.2.236) to someone sitting on the front row. This showman element was exemplified in O’Neill’s British Museum’s Staging Shakespeare exhibit where he had a look of Robbie Williams, and there was much of the ‘Let Me Entertain You’ in O’Neill’s performance. Rylance addressed the groundlings in the pit throughout, but without the confidence that O’Neill had shown over the summer. It was as if he was unsure of himself, and that the play demanded him to follow the path that he does and he is carried along with it all.
In both productions, there were some very strong performances in the female roles. The absence of Margaret in the Globe production felt strange. Paola Dionisotti had delivered such a powerful performance in the RSC production that Margaret’s presence had become a beat underneath the action. Dionisotti’s Margaret stamped her foot on the metal stage as she cursed the court, making her prophesies hard to forget as characters moved closer to there deaths. Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth played the grieving mother with great effect, and Pippa Nixon’s performance as Anne was sharp and nuanced and when she spat in Richard’s face the audience gasped (1.2). In the Globe production Samuel Barnett’s Elizabeth made a bold move and took control by kissing Richard at the end of 4.4, an approach I’d not seen before.
One of the strengths of the RSC production was in the supporting roles. Alex Waldmann’s Catesby was a particular example of an excellent supporting performance, and he always seemed to be there in the background, and encouraging the citizens to support Richard (4.1). He presented Catesby as a geeky character wearing glasses in the first half, but growing in confidence alongside Richard as Richard moves closer to the throne. There was an incredible performance from Iain Bachelor as Richmond, who felt very much like the nation’s saviour. His ‘why then ’tis time to arm and give direction’ (5.3) speech not only seemed to motivate the soldiers in his camp, but the audience as well. Joshua Jenkins’ and Neal Barry’s murderers were a very comic double act, and Edmund Kingsley made a walk so effective and moving as Clarence purposely crossed the stage to the bed where he would die. The bed was placed in the same place as Henry’s coffin had in 1.2, drawing attention to Clarence’s ‘royal’ persona, but also foreshadowing the murder.
In the RSC production, the scenes with the citizens and Lord Mayor were almost slapstick. These showed Richard to be both manipulative, and a comedian at the first time. As the lights went down on the first half, O’Neill would grin at the audience and sometimes wave. As an audience, we were clearly meant to enjoy this, but we were also complicit with Richard in his machinations.
The sword fight in the RSC production made the most of the small Swan stage and the close proximity of the audience. It was energetic, exciting and unnerving and there were actual sparks generated when the swords clashed. At the end, the RSC production took a motif from Michael Boyd’s 2011 RSC Macbeth. The ghost of the young Prince ran on stage to distract Richard, and that’s when he is overthrown by Richmond. The Globe went one step further and all the ghosts appeared, but this seemed rather excessive and did not work well.
The lights came up at the end of the RSC production to signal the new regime. The Globe production brought close through the dance. In a play where Richard has two-thirds of the lines, there’s a lot for the actors to work with and O’Neill and Rylance took different perspectives of Richard’s character and presented both villain and comedian in different ways and held the audience’s attention throughout.
Reviews and Previews
Richard III Globe 2012
Richard III RSC 2012
References are to the Macmillan/RSC text