Yesterday, IP Draughts enjoyed a production of Richard III, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.
Shakespeare’s history plays can be hard work for the audience. The murderous squabbles of the ruling classes in medieval England don’t engage the emotions in the way that his tragedies do. In the latter case, the central themes are visceral: jealousy, grief, coming manhood, failing pride, vaulting ambition. The great tragedy plays – Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and Othello – have strong plots, but ultimately they are vehicles for exploring emotions and ideas.
The histories don’t lack such themes, but we see them through a prism of power struggles: against the French, against the nobles, against the King, against pretenders to the throne. Monarchs are murdered, or murder others. Queens grieve, or plot. Heirs chafe against authority. It can be a bit dull, slow-paced, and difficult to follow, at least when compared with Game of Thrones.
There were no protected characteristics in Shakespeare’s time. He has no problem with creating entertainment from themes that might shock a modern audience, such as anti-semitism (as in the Merchant of Venice) or physical deformity, as in Richard III.
In this production, Arthur Hughes plays Richard. Hughes needs no padded costume to convey the idea of deformity, because he has a disability in real life – one arm is shorter and the hand turned inward. Seeing this deformity, a modern audience might incline to sympathy, subverting Shakespeare’s intention. But Shakespeare’s words (and Hughes’ acting) are powerful enough to reveal a different truth to the one the author intended: just because you are disabled doesn’t mean you deserve sympathy: it is a person’s character that counts.
If the play is hard work, the production does everything it can to sweeten the pill. The actors speak their lines with sufficient emphasis, rhythm and clarity to do justice to Shakespeare’s style. This makes the 16th century English much easier to understand. Too often, even in RSC productions at Stratford, actors speak in a kind of naturalistic mumble that badly misses the point.
Hughes and many of the other actors are excellent, and the production and direction are masterly, though perhaps the director should have been more ruthless at cutting sections of the play that drag, particularly in the first half. The final half-hour makes up for this, engages the audience and sends them away on a high.