Richard III (a one-woman show)
Edinburgh Fringe, venue 127
Church of St John the Evangelist,
Princes St, Edinburgh
27th August 2015
I think perhaps we’re getting to the stage where everything that could possibly be done with and to Shakespeare’s plays has been done, from the instantly recognisable histrionics of Laurence Olivier on film to Blackadder, from modern-dress productions to translations into Klingon. But the Bard won’t lie down, and neither will the inventiveness of his interpreters. Brite Theater’s Emily Carding has been presenting a one-woman version of Richard III for Edinburgh Fringe audiences, obliterating (according to pre-publicity) the traditional ‘fourth wall’ between audience and performer, and garnering some glowing reviews. Will this be another one? Wait and see!
To distil any play to a state where a single actor can carry it requires judicious and inspired editing. We’re blessed that Shakespeare’s protagonists soliloquise so often, to give insight into their state of mind and intentions, that we have a good base to build on. The script of the Brite version of Richard III carries things further by, inter alia, incorporating some of the lines of other characters into Richard’s by way of commentary, in this kind of construction: “You say so-and-so has done such-and-such, well then…” Other devices are used, such as the modern setting allowing Richard to hold a conversation on a mobile phone, or to read out a series of incoming texts from another character. Surprisingly these are devices which all work. The breaking of the fourth wall isn’t as total as the pre-publicity makes out. By and large we sit and watch enrapt. Various members of the audience, as they file in, are given a sign to hang round their necks, identifying them as this or that character from the play; beyond that they are required to do very little, they have no set lines or actions beyond natural reactions, or occasionally they have to stand and be spoken to by Richard. Perhaps their major contribution is to receive a sticker bearing the word ‘DEAD’ when their character is disposed of. Apart from that we, the audience, watch and listen, standing once, and proclaiming once “Long live Richard, England’s royal King”. The reluctance and self-consciousness with which we complied with that was the whole point, and was the moment in the play when the fourth wall was truly broken – we were Richard’s unwilling subjects.
So much for the mechanics of the play. What about Emily Carding’s performance? Well, it is bound up with those mechanics. We meet her Richard, as we settle in our seats in the small venue, seeing him/her – ‘him’ from this point in my review – glowering from a swivel chair, wearing a dark suit. Draco Malfoy two decades on, almost. When we are still, and have been so for several seconds, Richard gives a deep sigh and, after another pause, speaks.
Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…
A gesture to the labeled audience member, and – ah yes! – we are off, we are in familiar territory, and we are instantly attentive. The pause worked, and the delivery works. The standing, moving Richard is stereotypically deformed, not exaggeratedly so, but with a definite hunch and limp. Indeed if this punch is pulled then the meaning would go out of the words of the play. The delivery sharpens the focus on Richard, facilitates our listening to the actor’s words, those words becoming almost a sonata for voice. Sometimes this means we are not entirely sure what is soliloquy and what is not, and this points out a disadvantage in the concept of this presentation, inasmuch as an audience member must already understand the plot and structure of the full play in order to navigate the one-woman version. It would be almost pointless coming to this performance otherwise.
What else is lost, and does it matter? Well, most obviously, the play is shorn of much of its Tudor propaganda. All we know of Richmond – the future Henry VII – is the ‘vile politician’ Richard portrays him as. Yes, I know that’s a term from Henry IV Part 1, but the character to which it is applied is the type of which Richmond is the antitype, each shown as arguably justified in usurping an enthroned and anointed ‘Richard’. However, what this shearing-away of the Lancastrian apologia does is allow us to focus on Richard the man. The play à la Brite Theater, becomes The Tragedy of Richard III, with Richard as an anti-hero with whom we become intimately involved. Despite the fact that the casualty list of his ambition is plainly on show with ‘DEAD’ stickers on the victims, we begin to feel pity for this king, we see that he is no coward in his ambition. It’s not enough to make us Ricardian converts, but it makes us think, makes us check what we are feeling.
There are telling moments. Richard falls silent, remains so for a long time, his gaze tracking slowly from face to face in the audience. Suddenly we realise that he is looking, one-by-one, at every person whose death he has engineered and, if we know the play, we realise that he is seeing their ghosts on the night before the battle of Bosworth. If we know the play. Richard’s death is another telling moment. Already wounded, already dying, already wearing a ‘DEAD’ label, he pleads for a horse, pledges his kingdom for it, and dies reaching for the paper crown that has fallen from his head. The fact that it is made of paper serves to show how, ultimately, it is a meaningless object of desire and ambition. The play has to end there, Richard is dead.
Emily Carding’s performance in fact held me throughout. This can’t have been an easy performance to carry off. Allowing a small scattering of comedic moments and ad-libbing seasoned the mixture, but by far it was her delivery and characterisation that worked. It was an intensely emotional and even moving portrayal of the last Yorkist king of England. Hopefully this review will be on line in time to persuade you to go along and see the performance; as I write, the remaining performances are on 28th, 29th, and 31st of August. Despite the fact that I seem to be expressing reservations throughout this review, they are fair observations, and I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to you. FOUR STARS
Reviewer : Paul Thompson