Most directors feel the need to re-imagine, re-interpret or otherwise update Shakespeare for contemporary audiences, but none more so than Paul Hart, who has – by finding humour in one of the Bard’s darkest works – transformed what can be a staid, dour and overly familiar play into a very fresh, exciting and hugely entertaining romp through history.
Propeller’s Richard III is a truly bizarre but ultimately well-judged mix of influences: set in what appears to be a Victorian mental hospital-cum-abattoir and interspersed throughout with jaunty close harmony singing and copious amounts of fake blood and guts, it has more than a hint of Sweeney Todd about it. There is also a strong thread of gory, gothic camp running all the way though, bringing to mind The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Richard and his Queen walk to their coronation on a carpet of bodybags and, after eventually killing her, he bites her finger off in order to get the wedding ring back.
The Propeller group’s overriding concern for their productions to be accessible is obvious here. For those who find Shakespeare difficult to penetrate, Hart bring his meaning from between the lines and shoves it the audience’s faces. Murder and torture – so often pushed off the stage and only referred to obliquely – are brought front and centre, with one of the many victims being spectacularly chainsawed to death by the ever-present chorus of sinister butchers.
Like Ian Richardson before him, Richard Clothier -in the title role – understands that even the darkest, most evil characters can endear themselves to the audience, and Clothier does so in a series of charming, arresting asides to the audience even as he kills his way to the top. It is, however, far from being only an irrevent, disrespectful send-up of the original text and – albeit after a first half drags and loses its way somewhat – becomes a fully-fledged, intelligent commentary on the inherently corruptive nature of power, as Shakespeare intended. The energy and pace the first half lacks is in evidence in the second, with the audience being made very much aware of the steady, inexorable build-up to war and of the momentous nature of what they see unfolding before them. However eccentric and playful the interpretation, it is made very clear that we are witnessing a key turning point in English history that had very real ramifications for centuries to come.