A wall covered in moths and a throne is all that is needed for the set of Zoe Ford’s Richard III at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. The gruesome plot fills the rest of the stage, and the cast savours the burst of every fake blood capsule.

From the murder of Henry VI in the first scene to the lengthy strangulation of Queen Anne, this is Shakespeare’s most infamous history at its bloodiest. Murder scenes are relished, with intricately choreographed fighting preceding the throat slashing, neck grabbing and multiple stabbings that occur throughout the play. These dances of death vary from the light-footed pixie steps of Mary Cormack’s Prince Edward fighting for his life, to the intensely brutish choreography of the final fight scene, in which Josh Jefferies’ Richmond is thrown around the stage.

David McLaughlin’s King Richard looks as though he could have stepped straight off Camden High Street and into a Guy Ritchie movie. Leathered up to the nines with slickly oiled hair, he struts around the stage like a badass gangster. The on-stage brutality has a soundtrack to match: The Raconteur’s “Blue Veins” is just one of the anthems accompanying the murder scenes. McLaughlin, with the help of some craftily placed belts, subtly increases his hunched shoulder as the play progresses. He expertly captures the conniving mind of history’s most villainous King – at times, he is as angry as a rabid dog; at others he is sly and shrewd, producing comical one-liners.

…Edward IV’s hedonistic court is captured effortlessly…

Richard 3rdFord moves away from the temptation to rely on famous lines and adopts a more logical timeline – scenes of Henry VI’s death and Edward IV’s loved ones agreeing to work together proceed Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy, and the second prince in the Tower is never mentioned. Richmond’s soliloquys are cut dramatically, and the play ends at King Richard’s death.

The changes are decisive and modern adaptions that could prove disastrous are succinct. Edward IV’s hedonistic court is captured effortlessly in a trippy scene with the cast dancing in strobe lighting to electro, as if they are off their faces in a Warehouse Project, while Callum Cameron’s Edward IV drapes over the throne watching the debauchery unfold in front of him.

…she looks as though she is on the brink of crying herself sick…

King Richard’s encounter with the ghosts of his past is one of the best theatrical feats of the night, in which McLaughlin battles with a coat suspended from above. The only downfall in this is that the complex routine doesn’t quite work unless you are sat directly in front of the stage – those in the side seats lose out on some of the illusion.

The highlight of the night is Gemma Barrett’s heart wrenching performance as Edward IV’s widow and mother of the murdered prince Edward. Her dreadlocks flail wildly as she throws herself on the floor in despair– a scene so successfully uncomfortable she looks as though she is on the brink of crying herself sick. Her collaborations with Tabitha Becker-Kahn as the Duchess of York and Helen Reuben as Lady Anne are equally painful to watch – the women bring home their helpless desperation in a world of patriarchal domination.

…subtle modern updates renew the story for a contemporary audience…

The lengthy pre-battle soliloquys in the final scenes that are often tedious to watch are broken up with precision, creating a Shakespearian trash-talking mash up that Mike Tyson would be proud of. The play ends on Richard’s feeble pleas “My kingdom for a horse”, which could have used a little more vehemence after such a strong performance.

Ultimately, from the first puff of the smoke machine to the last notes of the modern soundtrack, Ford’s creation is as close to the original plot as methodically possible, but subtle modern updates renew the story for a contemporary audience.

Arts_4 Stars4 Stars

Richard III is on at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 1st March. 

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