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Royal Shakespeare Theatre review: Richard III

Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, until October 8.

By Chris Arnot

One of a cluster of wailing women widowed by the dastardly Richard calls him “a lump of foul deformity”. To his face, what’s more.

Not exactly politically correct. But then the play was written towards the end of the 16th century and set just over 100 years earlier.

As it happens, this particular “lump” has no hump. His back is as straight as a die. (Unlike his morals, needless to say.) As it also happens, Arthur Hughes is apparently the first genuinely disabled actor to take on this much-coveted part.

His right arm is bent near the wrist, the hand somewhat withered. But yes, he can still wield a sword or dagger with his left, if he’s not paying someone else to do his dirty work.

Fans of The Archers may recognise in Hughes the voice of Rory Aldridge. Here, in the central role on a fabled stage, he uses that voice to good effect, proclaiming loudly at its centre and confiding cynically with the audience at its sides.

At one point he observes that “my kingdom stands on brittle glass”.

No change there then. The throne that makes regular appearances on a fast-changing set has a somewhat worn look about it.

Well, it has changed hands at fairly regular intervals during the Wars of the Roses. As those wars approach their ending with the forthcoming Battle of Bosworth, so too does Richard’s short time on the throne that he has coveted for many years longer.

One of the play’s most stunning scenes is staged the night before the battle as he tosses and turns, haunted by well-deserved nightmares. The stone monument that has stayed on stage throughout turns a bloody shade of red and corpse after corpse rolls past in effectively eerie lighting.

A hearse, a hearse, his kingdom for a hearse. For himself, perhaps? The day of the battle dawns decidedly cloudy. The not too “glorious summer of this sun of York” is about to come to a bloody end.

Step forward the Earl of Richmond to become King Henry VII, played with resonant aplomb by Nicholas Armfield.

“The winter of our discontent” is over and the first of the Tudors is about to take that weathered throne.

His granddaughter Elizabeth I was the last of that dynasty and Shakespeare knew all too well how to stay on her side, even if that meant portraying Richard as a somewhat more dastardly figure than he was in real life.

Unlike that short-lived king, our best-loved playwright knew how to keep his head on his shoulders. Thank goodness.

Photo Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC


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