“England hath long been mad”. So utters Richmond in the final moments of Richard III and never has it felt more relevant. The figure at the centre of this play fits perfectly into today’s political and social angst; a manipulative, predatory villain who lets the audience in on the lie, Richard is as compelling as ever. In Headlong’s thoroughly enjoyable production is a lead performance that lives up to this - a prowling menace that only seems to pause to arch an eyebrow in the direction of the audience. Tom Mothersdale's propulsive turn holds a production together that is a technical marvel, even if at times it comes a cropper with the minutia of Shakespeare’s narrative.
At the play’s beginning Richard, Duke of Gloucester, plots his next steps towards the Crown. Having dispatched Henry VI (in a scene borrowed from the play's third act), the villain of the piece sets his eyes on dispatching those in his way to ruling a weary England, broken by years of civil war. "Plots I have laid" Richard informs the audience, all in pursuit of his final goal of a crown atop his brow. But there’s a cost to the Duke’s bloody pursuit.
Director John Haidar has crafted a production packed with technical marvels, marrying Elliot Griggs’ exemplary lighting design with a haunting soundscape from George Dennis. Chiara Stephenson’s set turns the stage into a hall of mirrors, used effectively throughout. It has to be said that it can feel like the technical elements can get in the way of the performances here, but these moments are fleeting and it mostly creates a visceral, deeply cinematic production, brimming with atmosphere and tension.
The ensemble stands out for its strength across the board, with several characters effectively doubled. This allows, for example, Tom Kanji to play both the innocent, naïve Clarence and the noticeably less innocent Catesby, which the actor relishes. Other highlights include Stefan Adegbola who makes the perfect politician in Buckingham, a slippery, charismatic figure whose presence is felt in a number of scenes. Eileen Nicholas brings a calm authority to the Duchess of York and the production fascinatingly elevates John Sackville’s Henry to a larger figure, constantly placing him on the peripheries of the actions around Richard. But this production belongs to Mothersdale who makes an oddly charismatic Richard. As repulsive as he is, the actor imbues the performance with humour, savouring the relationship between villain and audience. He seems to propel the production forward and this is a Richard III most effective when it is pushing forward, leaping from event to event (such as in its first twenty minutes).
Headlong Theatre have provided a rollicking Richard III; a technically impressive production shaped around a terrific lead performance from Mothersdale. While some of the play’s quieter moments feel lost here, this Richard builds to a particularly impactful finale, thanks to some interesting creative choices. An incredibly timely production of an always compelling play.