In Review

Richard III review: this RSC production shines with ‘magisterial splendour’

Titular character played by Arthur Hughes – the first actor with a disability to take on the role at Stratford

Richard III tells the story of a “morally bankrupt schemer, bereft of empathy and surrounded by sycophantic hypocrites”, who reaches the summit of power but is “fatally exposed by his own narcissism and ineptitude”.

No wonder they call Shakespeare’s greatest works “timeless”, said Michael Hughes on What’s on Stage

This new RSC production, directed by its outgoing artistic director Gregory Doran, boasts superb design, lighting and costumes – and stars Arthur Hughes, the first actor with a disability to play the character at Stratford. 

Hughes, who has radial dysplasia in his right arm, has already played Richard in the Henry VI plays. Here, he delivers on that promise, with a king whose “paranoia consumes and overwhelms his ambition”.

Hughes’s Richard is a dead-eyed schemer and “swaggering sociopath”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. But there is also a “smarmy mischief” to his portrayal, a certain breeziness that gives his villainy a peculiar note. He doesn’t seem quite wicked enough. 

But if the first half is short on menace, episodes of brilliance do arrive eventually, such as when Richard “reveals his anger beneath the dissembling”; and when Queen Elizabeth (Kirsty Bushell) is turned away from the tower where her sons will be murdered. 

Where the production really shines, though, is in the “magisterial splendour” of its stagecraft; the set has blood-red walls; the lighting is “sensational, with a scintillating play of shadow and silhouette”, and so is the celestial sound of a boy treble, Oliver Cooper, who sings “angelically while Richard’s devilry takes place”.

Hughes’s performance is a triumph, given his relative inexperience on the Shakespeare stage, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph; and it “wins the case” for actors with disabilities “to take on this role as their birthright”. 

But while “lived experience is a route in”, so are “imagination, empathy and craft”. The “mighty legacy” of Antony Sher and the other great able-bodied Richards won’t be easily “consigned to the past”.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Until 8 Oct.

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