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Review: RICHARD III, Arcola Theatre

Of course we get the charm, the ruthlessness, the vaulting ambition, but at the heart of Greg Hicks' Richard III, a man-monster contorted into a human question mark by chains linking a withered arm and lame foot, a physical manifestation of his questionable behaviour (and his lackies' reluctance to challenge it), lies this exchange between Queen Elizabeth and Richard -

"But thou didst kill my children"

"But in your daughter's womb I bury them:

Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed

Selves of themselves, to your recomforture."

That caused an audible intake of breath around me, the simmering misogyny brought to the boil, the utter contempt for the feelings of others startlingly revealed and the weighing of human beings' worth solely in terms of how they could advance his own interests laid shockingly bare. Sometimes directors can vest a certain sympathy in Richard, trapped in his broken body and the contempt it provokes, but Mehmet Ergen gives us little with which to empathise, even as Richard squirms on the floor, put there by a princeling he will soon see off in The Tower.

In these most febrile of political times, Shakespeare's icon of regal evil feels more relevant than ever and the production hardly needs its modern dress to feel modern. As Richard slashes and burns his way to the throne, his isolation grows in proportion to his power and one wonders where his limits might be. Maybe there are none - in days when small hands rest not on the handle of a dagger, but a big red button, that's a sobering thought.

Hicks is, as ever, compelling up close, firing glares at the audience, daring us to say "Enough!", frighteningly confident that his cloak of power protects him - as it does until he lies on a battlefield, pathetically willing to trade all that for a horse and an escape that never comes. He gets strong support, particularly from Matthew Sim as his henchman, Catesby, an Andy Warhol lookalike with a coke habit. Georgina Rich as Lady Anne and Sarah Powell as Queen Elizabeth also impress, hating Richard, yet caught in his web of intrigue and murder - Ivanka and Kellyanne, take note.

For all that, the show is hard work. As ever with this play, there's a lot of backstory and plotting that is assumed and a vast tapestry of characters, some of whom we meet and some of whom we don't. Without reading Henry VI (Parts 1, 2 and 3) beforehand, it can be as tricky as Game of Thrones Seasons 5 and above in terms of keeping track of who is who and how the shifting alliances are progressing. Over a three hour presentation with few visual clues and so many names, that's a tough ask.

In consequence, this production is more likely to please Shakespeare aficionados rather than first-timers, but, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you might be with text, characters and context, you can't help but be astonished at how Shakey's insights into psychology resonate down the centuries.

Richard III continues at the Arcola Theatre until 10 June.

Photo Alex Brenner

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