Dark and entertaining look at Richard III

Richard III (Alex Comstock) argues and insults Queen Margaret (Katherine de Vere) in New Fortune Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III at UWA.  Photo by Michael McAllan.

by RAHUL K GAIROLA: NEW Fortune Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III is a dark yet entertaining tour de force that yokes the great bard into a contemporary context.

The production assembles a talented cast from The Graduate Dramatic Society of WA to deliver a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s most reviled villain, Richard III of Gloucester.

The play is directed by Dr Melissa Merchant and performed in an outdoor arena surrounded by the University of Western Australia’s limestone arches and leafy trees.

Juxtaposed with this serene background are maniacal royals who demonstrate in their own ways how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In drawing parallels to today’s British royal family just weeks before the May 8 coronation of King Charles III and adding a modern flavour to her rendition, Merchant makes clear to the audience that Richard III’s narrative and metaphors are as significant today as when it was first staged circa 1595.

Given this is Shakespeare’s second longest play, it is particularly challenging to pull off a powerful production.

The company accomplishes this by embodying the characters and their various emotions and motives, particularly through their individual, varying lusts for power. 

The parallels to the contemporary Windsors is uncanny – these include brothers against each other, the death of a monarch and subsequent passing of the crown, family feuds, an unpopular sister-in-law, gossip, backstabbing, and hollow appeals to an adoring and scornful public.

What I noticed throughout the production, was how deftly the various actors portrayed the villainous aspects of human nature which often render people to be more like cruel monsters.

It is this common thread, monstrous characterisations, that stands out as a major, unifying theme throughout the production. 

Various characters home in on Richard III’s disability as an outward manifestation of the ostensible evil within him.

However, Merchant wished to complicate this contention.

“In this production, we’ve tried to show a Richard whose evil nature doesn’t come from having disability; rather, it comes from being the youngest brother and feeling overlooked and undervalued,” Merchant says.

“It’s the people around Richard that link his evil actions with his outward disability, calling him a ‘hunch-backed toad,’ ‘lump of foul deformity,’ and ‘elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog.’”

Richard, portrayed by Alex Comstock, hobbles while using a cane and adopts a bent posture.

His adversaries and hostile family members openly deride him, commenting that his figure “infects” the eyes.

This stigmatisation of disability signals the larger, reprehensible tendency of both Elizabethan and contemporary societies to make sweeping judgements of humans through the visual register.

As if capitalising on this tendency, Comstock does a brilliant job at conveying Richard’s inner turmoil through his facial expression: “Facial expressions are absolutely a part of Richard’s toolbox that he uses to manipulate other people,” Comstock says. 

“In his opening monologue, Richard says he can ‘frame his face to all occasions.’ And distinct, decided facial expressions play a big part in portraying which version of Richard he is pretending to be at that time.

“We finally see this honesty and this vulnerability on his face, and we understand that this is the true Richard underneath everything.”

Such expressions crescendo when Richard has a lengthy altercation with Queen Margaret, played by Katherine De Vere.

In terms of the language in this play, De Vere says, “I think the Bard had very specific people in mind, when composing his insults, and his insults are so magnificently creative. Even in our times, there’s still a great deal of negative language used to describe older women. Shakespeare is quite gender-democratic though, he insults Richard and other men with even greater gusto!”

Richard III is on until Saturday March 18 at New Fortune Theatre on the UWA campus. 

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