Intrigue, murder and deception; these are all words that come to mind when recalling Shakespeare’s most infamous history play. Of course, the playwright laced the text with propaganda, intending it to appease Queen Elizabeth I. It is a monument to the ‘strength’ of the Tudor dynasty, achieved by tarnishing the Yorkist king on the historical record forever. Hell-bent on usurping his brother and even prepared to kill his innocent nephews, it is no wonder Richard is cast as history’s most malign villain.
But if the play is so rooted in medieval politics, what makes Aidan’s College Theatre (ACT) so sure they can draw in modern audiences? Adam Simpson, who plays Richard, argues that the play’s politics are more relevant today than ever before, stating that 2017 is ‘the perfect time for it.’ He claims that ‘a huge part of that is because of the political uncertainty of the world in the last few years,’ which ‘Brexit and the US elections have made clear’. Indeed, the multiple revivals of the classic in recent years, including BBC’s The Hollow Crown, Rupert Goold’s production starring Ralph Fiennes, and the Lyceum Theatre production in Edinburgh, all prove the undying hunger to see this traditional play restaged.
Undoubtedly, the allure of this production lies in the title character itself. Shakespeare desires us to loathe, detest and scorn Richard. However, we cannot help but be impressed by his eloquence and skills of manipulation. We cannot help but sympathise with this neglected and physically deformed man, within the cruel context of the medieval world. It is this endless complexity in his characterisation that makes him so fascinating. Yet despite the pressure that undoubtedly comes with playing such an iconic villain, Adam is excited to play the role. ‘You are seduced by Richard, he is a character that Shakespeare wants you to enjoy. You come to watch him break all these characters. But he is a repulsive character […] you want him to do all these things but then you feel repulsed by him’.
Yet do not be fooled into thinking this production is all about one man. The cast are adamant that an integral element to this play is the role of women, and how they negotiate their way through a cut-throat, male dominated environment. Angharad Phillips, who plays Queen Elizabeth, resolutely stated that ‘it’s a lot to do with how women are often the unwilling victims of male greed and violence, which is obviously still true today.’
The play assesses the rawest aspects of human emotions and interactions. ‘As a character [Elizabeth] starts off as very strong and very proud of her position in society’, but as the play progresses ‘she gradually just gets chipped down more and more…it’s not always about royalty, it’s about watching somebody lose everything they love as well. Even if people find Shakespeare’s language alienating, that’s something everybody can identify with.’
It is clear that director Katerina Theodoridis intends the Assembly Rooms Theatre to become a microcosm for evaluating human behaviour. She has made the astute decision to demonise Henry VII to almost the same extent as Richard, in order to showcase the very darkest elements of humanity, as the lines between morality and vice become blurred. This spotlight focus on human design is aided by the non-naturalistic staging, where scene changes are mostly enacted by technical elements to ensure a sustained focus on fundamental relationships.
Alluring in both its themes and its fascinating characters, Richard III promises to act as a mirror to our own society. In light of this, why would one pass up the opportunity to see an accessible, seductive and highly relevant adaptation of Shakespeare’s notorious tale?
‘Richard III’ will be showing at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 19th of January until Saturday, 21st of January at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Aidan’s College Theatre