first night

Richard III

Tessa Coates explores Durham Shakespeare Company's long awaited epic

It is unfortunate that when anyone asks how Durham Shakespeare Company's production of Richard the Third was the first thing you'll tell them is that it was very long. Three hours is a long time to sit through a student production, albeit one created by some of Durham's finest. Three hours of anything, except perhaps Leonardo Dicaprio wooing Kate Winslet, is tough and the energy needs to be kept alive at every turn. To their credit the actors did their best to give it all they had throughout what was no doubt a challenging experience, but there were scenes that were simply unnecessary and you couldn't help but feel that sometimes Shakespeare just needs to be cut.


The time is unknown but we are somewhere in the post-apocalyptic future as the Royal family deal with the aftermath of the War of the Roses and mounting tensions at court as their world is slowly unravelled by the Machiavellian plottings, murders and manipulations of Prince Richard the Third. Hunched and deformed, one leg at an angle, twisted hand in pocket, Ollie Lynes delivered a superb Richard. Rarely off the stage he held the audience captive with every scene as a suitably tormented and downright evil prince. It is hard to single out any one of the 21 actors playing 36 characters but mention must go to Mike Shaw, who played the king like he had all the aces, pyjamméd and barefoot but a force to be reckoned with.  Callum Cheatle also peformed well, arriving in various guises but delivering them all with suitable aplomb.


But it was the women who really stole the show; Charlie Peters as the deranged Queen Margaret got some of the best lines of the play and delivered them with heartfelt grief and Lucy Cornell as the Duchess of York portrayed the grief stricken mother with regal control that finally fell apart as she cursed the remaining son that has “made the earth her hell”. The sheer power of the all female scene was one of the best of the play. Gabbi Wass however, indisputably talented seemed somewhat lacking in her role and I felt wasn't used to her full potential, whether directorial or otherwise we never really felt her pain while it simply emanated from the other three women.


Credit must also go in this male dominated play to Caecilie Hobhouse if only for her transformation from ludicrously overplayed chicken drumstick eating “citizen” (naturally portrayed with a northern accent) to the eldest Prince of York. She was so unrecognisable in her role that not only did some members of the audience not realise she was the same person from the previous scene, but actually thought she was a boy. She and the youngest prince (all of 12 years old who almost got a clap just for coming on stage) played superbly arrogant regal princes


Brilliant as they all were, the cast were occasionally outshone by the lighting, soundtrack and set which created several truly impressive moments in the play.  Amongst the impressive set devices were the barbwire fence that divided the women from the young princes in the tower, the repeatedly transformed box that became an operating table, a throne, and of course the fantastic pile of post-apocalyptical detritus that surrounded the television at the front of the stage. The use of the video itself interspersed with the live actors became far more than a cleverly crafted distraction from set changes and an integral and unique part of the performance. Prop use was also well done, with what appeared to be broken pieces of clear plastic instead of actual swords not grating quite as much as I thought they would. However, since I have brought props to your attention I feel it is my duty to mention “The Head”. In the few hours following its horrific severance from his body with the help of a rusty hacksaw, the head of Lord Hastings (Ben Salter) had succeeded in shrinking to the size and apparent texture of a turnip complete with ginger hair that received a hastily stifled laugh from the audience when it was unceremoniously rolled out of its bag. It either need to be simply noted that the head had been successfully removed or something much more visually disturbing and impressive needed to come out of the bag.


I will end with the end which was, for use of a better word, stonking. Stage combat is notoriously difficult to pull off, and more often than not just ends up looking like the actors are punching their own hands.  It is very rare to see such a large scale battle scene delivered on the stage with such professionalism, emotion and power.  The curtain call was apt, replacing the jovial bow that would have undermined everything the last three hours had created. The cast was beautifully lit from beneath, illuminating the back drop of the famous image of Saint Paul’s during the blitz; an image of hope in a hopeless world and a wonderful lasting image of a great performance.



30 May 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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