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Review: Richard III, at Arcola Theatre

Greg Hicks, with the gaze of an East End gangster, stars in a seemingly relentless portrayal of violence

25 May, 2017 — By Julie Tomlin

Greg Hicks in Richard III. Photo: Alex Brenner

THERE’S no doubt that RSC associate Greg Hicks’ Richard III is the centrepiece of Mehmet Ergan’s production at the Arcola Theatre. So much so that the sight of his spidery form making its way back onto the stage is always a welcome one, despite it representing such chilling menace.

Disfigured and lean, Richard is portrayed as a thug who moves deftly between charm, swagger and cruelty as he weaves a web of murderous destruction from his dark inner loathing of self and others. It is women, in particular, who are the focus of his contempt, and these he seduces, scorns, uses and murders in pursuit of the throne.

First glimpsed as the audience take their seats, Hicks’ Richard sits alone, drinking and playing with a spinning top. Leather-jacketed with an earring, he has the ever-watchful gaze of a violent East End gangster. When he stands, the chain we see is revealed as connecting a club foot to his arm, an affliction which is an object of torment and repugnance.

Despised, feared and hated, Richard is as insecure and full of childish passions – seen both cowering and contemptuous under his mother’s curses, he is as disturbing as he is threatening. Fortunately, Hicks’ portrayal mines the humour of the play as well as its dark meaning – some of his asides are brilliantly funny and Peter Guinness as the loyal, ultimately discarded, Buckingham, is a strong companion in some of the more comedic scenes.

The women whose lives are undone by the trail of murder Richard effects, rise majestically in two of the scenes. Jane Bertish, formerly Queen Margaret, visibly draws from the depths of the wrongs done to her, to rain vengeant curses on all assembled. Sara Powell’s finest moment as Queen Elizabeth, King Edward’s wife, comes when, brought to her knees by grief at the murder of her sons, she finds herself, as Margaret prophesied, begging her to teach her to curse.

Anthony Lamble’s set – a bare stage, two mirrored pillars, a metal balustrade, and a fire escape on wheels – is a strong backdrop to what is ultimately a gruesome – and seemingly relentless portrayal of violence.

And the fact that peace established by invocation of a wrathful God is a tenuous one comes through in what is a slightly shaky end.

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