Richard III by William Shakespeare

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Richard III by William Shakespeare, BBC Radio 7, 31 October 2009

Broadcast in tribute to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, Jane Morgan’s revival celebrated the vocal virtues of its leading man. From the outset it was clear that Gloucester (Ian Holm) would stop at nothing to achieve his ends. He was a consummate actor – at once proud yet obsequious, mock-sympathetic yet concerned – who only communicated his innermost thoughts to the listeners through asides. Gloucester remained firmly convinced of his abilities to outwit everyone else; what mattered more to him was the way in which he achieved his ends. If a scheme went well – for example, the successful disposal of Clarence (Philip Voss) in a vat of malmsey – Gloucester’s delight was obvious. If someone like Buckingham (Tom Wilkinson) got in his way, Gloucester’s voice became testy, almost as if he could not stand the thought of a potential rival.

Clearly no one could resist such a powerful figure: one of the main conceits of this production was that most characters – particularly the women – believed that the political upheaval in England was caused by Fate, not by Gloucester himself. It was as if they could not quite believe that someone could be quite so unscrupulous as to order the death (for example) of the two innocent princes (William Buckhurst, Matthew Carroll) in the Tower. Both Tyrrel (John Church) and the professional murderers (Shaun Prendergast, Robin Summers) suffered from moments of squeamishness as they took their orders from Gloucester, their voices quavered in dread of the retribution awaiting them, once the deed had been committed.

In the end, however, it was Gloucester himself who became a victim of Fate. This was signalled through the ominous use of background music, which became louder and louder as the production unfolded. The women – particularly Queen Elizabeth (Sarah Badel) – reminded him of the strength of Fate, as they placed a curse on him as revenge for what he had done. Gloucester/ Richard defiantly resisted, his voice becoming shriller and shriller as he did so, but by the end it seemed inevitable that Richmond (Brett Usher) would emerge victorious as the Battle of Bosworth and restore England to some kind of political stability. The crowning moment came just before the conflict, when Richard’s victims paraded one by one before him, their voices echoing as they reminded him of exactly what he had done. Richard’s only response was to whimper, as if he realized by now that Fate would take revenge on him. As the battle began, Richmond have a rallying-call to his troops; delivered in a triumphant tone, it had strong echoes of the famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” line from Henry V, reminding us that Richard III represents the culmination of Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays.

I have only one criticism to make of the ending of this production: Richard’s descent from all-powerful dictator into shambling wreck seemed a little too quick, as if director Morgan had suddenly realized that Holm was going to take over the entire production, and hence introduced the emotional shift in order to bring about the expected happy ending.

This two-and-a-half hour long production was impeccably cast, and held the attention throughout, reminding us in the process that Richard III can also be approached as a gripping political thriller as well as a chronicle of British history.