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REVIEW: Arthur Hughes brings fresh charm to the role of Richard III at the RSC

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Richard III, RSC, until 8th October, 4 stars

Steve Sutherland finds a sprightly production full of blithe spirit and political resonance

IT’S what you might call an open goal. Back in his Eton days, Boris Johnson insisted on playing the lead in a school production of Richard III. Characteristically, he didn’t bother to learn his lines, had them stuck to the back of pillars on the stage set, then mostly mugged it up and improvised.

I mention this for two reasons. One: even as our Stratford Richard III is running at the RSC, a production called Boris The Third, an imagined restaging of that Eton mess, is in preparation for a spell at the Edinburgh Fringe, and two: I surely wasn’t the only one to notice that in Nicholas Armfield, who plays the RSC’s rather bland Richmond, the rescuer of the realm from the unhinged Richard, you could hardly pick an actor who looks more like Keir Starmer.

Richard III Production RSC (57676775)
Richard III Production RSC (57676775)

No real need, then, to dwell on the miraculous but bleedingly obvious fact that once again the Bard has managed to travel down through the centuries and present us with a mirror to blanch in. A play about a misogynistic bully taking the whole nation for a ride on the back of his inflated entitlement with a cast saddled with his schemes by fear and false promises – rather timely don’t you think?

That out of the way then, who we really need to talk about is Arthur. Arthur Hughes to be exact, the actor whose groundbreaking casting as Richard is the RSC’s major selling point. A relative newbie to Stratford, Hughes was chosen to play Richard in part because he has a lived experience with a disability. He was born with radial dysplasia – a shortened arm – and having a thespian with a disability play the character roundly derided and abused for his deformity by his peers rather than having the usual non-disabled-bodied someone-or-other limp about under a weight of prosthetics is rightly being praised as socially and morally corrective. Whether it’s as theatrically revolutionary in practice as director Greg Doran would have us believe is another matter entirely.

There’s no denying Hughes’ Richard is a handsome box office proposition and his RSC debut, in the second half of the recent War Of The Roses, was pretty brazenly staged like a teaser for this production. It goes against tradition, of course, for Richard to be the most attractive actor on stage and while this renders the work a certain freshness, it also comes with its drawbacks, mostly in the shock-and-awe department. Hughes plays Richard like a petulant teen and the audience is as easily swayed to confederate in his devious deceptions and those he manipulates onstage. It must be said, it’s a bit weird when you turn up expecting what the scholars have long labelled one of Shakespeare’s histories only to find yourself thrown neck-deep into a comedy. There’s more than a mite of the Rik Mayalls about Hughes’ Richard and thanks to his many exuberant asides, we find ourselves surprisingly on his side, and against our finer impulses, actually enjoying the way he gulls his hapless victims as if each bold-faced lie and deadly innuendo were a mere schoolboy prank.

Richard III Production RSC (57676720)
Richard III Production RSC (57676720)

The play’s famous for the murder of the young princes in the Tower, the kingdom for a horse bit and the betrayal of the faithful enabler Buckingham (played straight as an arrow here by Jamie Wilkes) but the essential narrative arc actually pivots around a pair of seduction scenes. In the first, Richard woos Lady Anne Neville – played with a winning way with wavering by Rosie Sheehy. She’s fully cogniscent of the fact that he’s murdered her husband and father-in-law, yet allows herself to be swayed by his cunning proclamations that he kind of only did the dirty deeds so he could get his grips on her. We should, of course, be appalled that she’s so easily and swiftly conned into marriage but such are Hughes’ breezy truth-twisters that we actually admire his audacity.

Richard III Production RSC (57752563)
Richard III Production RSC (57752563)

About an hour or so later, stagetime-wise, Richard comes undone, his self-confidence fraying, his paranoia rampant. The journey to the top proves a lot more rewarding than trying to stay there and he unravels during the second attempted seduction, when all his wheedling and wonky logic won’t wash.

His plan is to marry the daughter of Elizabeth whose sons (the princes) and husband (King Edward IV) he’s recently snuffed. However, this time he is mocked, rebuffed, sarcastically snogged by Kirsty Bushell’s stronger, mourning widow and the game’s up. And just as the play itself revolves around the reversal of outcome in these two scenes, so does the success of this particular showing. Hughes is irresistible as the nasty charmer in the first half, but he’s not so convincing when it comes to the fits of rage and the psychological collapse. There’s just a little lack of depth and gravitas to the early upwardly mobile Richard that means his fall wobbles dramatically in support of a believable breakdown.

Richard III Production RSC (57752561)
Richard III Production RSC (57752561)

That said, this is a sprightly delivery of a very long play, enlivened along the way by Minnie Gale’s hysterical turn as the quite mad Queen Margaret dishing out dark prophesies like so much cursed confetti, and a neat little chucklesome cameo from Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha as the bumbling murderers.

The final curtain - the kingdom for a horse bit – is RSC invention at its most spectacular as a steed comprised of the risen ghosts of Richard’s slaughtered mugs and misfortunates carries him to his doom on the battlefield at Bosworth.

Who knew regicide could be such fun?

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