Theatre review: Richard III

Joseph Arkley's Richard is terrific, a frighteningly clever and relentless character who will stop at nothing for power
Joseph Arkley's Richard is terrific, a frighteningly clever and relentless character who will stop at nothing for power
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THE last time I saw Richard III – in Thomas Ostermeier’s version at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival – he was played by Lars Eidinger, a remarkable actor who had done time as a DJ, among other work in the entertainment industry; and if Joseph Arkley’s terrific performance in the same role at Perth Theatre is any guide, then we could be in for a whole generation of Richards influenced more by the powerful, complicit energy of stand-up comedy, and hard-edged musical performance, than by memories of Laurence Olivier, or even of Antony Sher.

Perth Theatre ****

In truth, though, there’s nothing very conventional about any aspect of Lu Kemp’s brilliantly fast-paced and theatrical production at Perth Theatre, from designer Natasha Jenkins’s striking mix of period and modern costumes, to the terrific, no-holds-barred range of voices that rips the play from its usual received-pronunciation comfort zone, and throws a sharp light on the strand of dark, bitter and brutal comedy that runs through both Richard’s soliloquies, and his savage exchanges with other characters who understand his game – notably his widowed sister-in-law Elizabeth, brilliantly played here by a relentless and scornful Meg Fraser, and his ancient mother, the Duchess of York, conjured up with tremendous flair and viciousness by the great Alison Peebles.

Add a wonderful, elegant and furious performance from Mercy Ojelade as Richard’s wife Anne, and the voice of Shakespeare’s women in this play ring through with a rare and impressive clarity. Yet this slightly shortened version of the play – deftly edited by Frances Poet – also spares us nothing in terms of the seething, violent machismo of the men around Richard, as Michael Moreland’s Buckingham and Martin McCormick’s Catesby create a kind of absurdist theatre of blood with their manic willingness to slaughter everyone – man, woman or child – who stands in Richard’s way.

At the centre of it all, though, stands Joseph Arkley’s commanding Richard, afflicted with a withered arm, but otherwise a dark, imposing figure, lightly cajoling the audience into complicity with the sheer cleverness of his horrific schemes.

Lu Kemp makes brilliant use of young players from Perth’s youth company to evoke the presence of a younger generation utterly betrayed by the violence around them; Stevie Jones’s soundscape is weird, pulsing and inspired, every word of the text fully understood and spoken with passion.

And in the age of Putin, when a clever and breathtakingly ruthless leader is once again running rings around those who pause for thought or entertain doubts, the story of Richard’s relentless rise – and eventual fall – has never seemed more timely; or more like a play for today, for Scotland and the world.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 31 March