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Richard III by William Shakespeare

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 14 April 2013
 
Marc Beeby's 2004 production contained an intriguing central performance by Douglas Henshall as Gloucester.  He was neither a scheming villain communicating his enjoyment to listeners (in the Olivier mould), nor a insect-like personality, the embodiment of evil (recalling Antony Sher).  Rather he came across as someone willing to make friends with anyone if it suited his purposes.  First Clarence (Michael Maloney) fell under his spell; then Buckingham (Ben Miles); both of them soon discovered to their cost what a mistake they had made by trusting him. Through this pretence of affability Gloucester came across as an extremely dangerous character whose true motives were concealed from everyone - except the listeners.  Radio proved ideal medium, as he could whisper his lines in asides without anyone else overhearing him.
 
Gloucester's rise to power was set against a world in turmoil, wherein social order had collapsed.  Director Beeby suggested this through sound-effects; in several sequences taking place at court we heard wild dogs barking or the cawing of crows in the background.  Even those closest to power could no longer expect any protection from evil.  On other occasions Beeby introduced echo-effects, transforming Shakespeare's lines into prophecies of doom.  In Clarence's bedroom-scene speeches (just before he met his untimely death in a vat of malmsey) the echoes emphasized his growing awareness of his fate.  In a dog-eat-dog world, no one was safe any more.
 
This framework for the production gave new meaning to the curses placed on Gloucester by the women, especially Queen Margaret (Barbara Jefford), who at one point whispered her lines direct to listeners out of everyone else's earshot.  It seemed as if they possessed an unearthly power to transform the universe through words alone without seeking divine assistance.
 
David Pickvance's music - a jarring combination of synthesized effects and instrumentals - helped reinforce the notion of a world cursed by Gloucester's deeds.  We heard snatches of it just before a murder was about to happen.  At the end of the play, the music accompanied the battle-sequences, transforming them into ritualized dances.  In a world dominated by evil, such conflicts were unavoidable.
 
The effects of this anarchy on ordinary people were vividly illustrated in a short sequence involving three citizens (Rachel Atkins, Cherie Taylor-Battiste, and Frances Jeater).  One looked back nostalgically to the past, when King Edward "Had virtuous uncles to protect his grace," while another feared the worst in "This sickly land," in which no one was safe, not even Gloucester whose future seemed "full of danger."  This reference underlined the success of Gloucester's campaign to seize the throne: while eliminating his rivals one by one, he maintained his public image of being a reliable, trustworthy person appealing to the popular consciousness.
 
In the end Gloucester ran out of options; the forces ranged against him were just too great.  Just before the Battle of Bosworth - where he met his untimely end - he delivered a final soliloquy wherein his aggressive fašade collapsed.  He whined like a little boy looking for - but not receiving - any sympathy from his parents for what he had done. When none came, he resolved to fight on, even though he understood the hopelessness of his task.
 
The ending, when it came, seemed rather peremptory.  Richmond (Geoffrey Streatfeild) - vocally much more light-voiced than Gloucester - assumed power and announced that social order had been restored.  However the memory of Gloucester's reign lived on in the mind: whatever evil he might have committed, he had carried it out with style and panache.  This is what rendered him so devilishly attractive as well as dangerous.