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Review: Richard III at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Four years ago, Adjoa Andoh directed and starred in an all-Black women cast Richard II at the Globe which mused on what it means to be British today.

Richard III is less ‘this blessed plot’ than this damned plotter as its titular anti-hero dispatches all before him for what does indeed turn out to be a hollow crown.

Our world view of Richard has undoubtedly been shaped by Shakespeare – and despite more recent attempts to rehabilitate his reputation, this essentially Tudor propaganda (Shakespeare was writing for Elizabeth I after all and using source material shaped by the victors of Bosworth) has remained the version that has endured.

I recall spending more than one morning toiling over history finals papers in the shadow of Millais’ heart-tugging Victorian depiction of The Princes in the Tower for example.

Andoh appears to be in the rehabilitation camp, apparently inspired by her Scouse history teacher mother. But how to make Richard sympathetic within the bounds of the Bard’s acid barbs? Can you really wring redemption from the piece?

She has spoken of both body pathology and societal prejudice, with Richard vilified for his physical ‘otherness’, and this new production is also informed by her own adolescent experience of growing up in the rural Cotswolds, a face apart from the world immediately around her.

Striking staging (and lighting) sets the story against a nominally bucolic backdrop of Morris men, maypoles, shady oaks, Herne the hunter-style May Day costuming, folk-informed score (by Andoh's brother Yeofi) and broad West Country accents – although an opening skimmington at Richard’s expense hints at darker forces bubbling beneath.

Above: The cast of Richard III around the maypole. Photo by Manuel Harlan. Top: Adjoa Andoh (Richard III) and Daniel Hawksford (Richmond) battle it out on Bosworth Field. Photo by Shonay Shote.

These darker forces soon explode through the seemingly cosy surface in what is a vigorous production which draws out the pitch-black humour of the piece and makes the audience a complicit companion to Richard’s murderous and increasingly manic manoeuvring.

Andoh brings a fierce, commanding energy to the stage.

She’s a charismatic performer - your eyes can’t help but follow as her Richard prowls, capers and cowers, faux supplicant; the product of both a dysfunctional age and family who is driven by his desire for affirmation into what becomes a merciless revenge on those closest to him.

At times the sheer speed of delivery combined with West Country burr blurs a line or two, while some of the dialogue in the second half teeters between powerful and shouty.

But it’s a gripping, imaginative, inquiring and articulate piece of theatre all the same.

Within a strong ensemble company there’s particularly enjoyable work from Joseph Kloska as the Belial-tongued Buckingham, while amid the sound and fury, Harry Clarke as Catesby and Antonie Azor (Ratcliffe) are quietly effective as the sinister and morally malleable henchmen who carry out Richard's dirtiest deeds.

Cast illness meant the Lord Chamberlain Hastings was played on press night by assistant director Harriett O’Grady who slipped into the role with calm confidence and, impressively, completely off book.


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