The mantels are lined with bottles and wine glasses, the stage strewn with velvet lounges and gilded with dark wood panelling, a pair of ornamental Samurai swords on display. In front of shelves stacked with black marble busts hunches Richard, Duke of Gloucester – played by Kate Mulvany – in a black suit. She looks up at the audience and smiles.

Kate Mulvany and the cast of Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3. Photos © Prudence Upton

Peter Evans sets his production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in a single room. Anna Cordingley’s sets and costumes create an abstract space with nods to 1920s décor belied by a contemporary cordless phone and a television screen set in the wall. A refrain of dream-like party scenes weaves through the production, guests dance convulsively or shake cocktails while others move in slow motion in a surreal, choreographed debauch, characters moving through time at different speeds to an over-saturated soundtrack of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. The cast sings English hymns during scene changes – usually little more than a rearranging of chairs – culminating in an ironic Jerusalem at the play’s climax.

The stage is always well populated – guests rarely leave the party, even when they’re dead. Players ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ through a meeting of eyes across the room or a subtle shift in Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design. The characters that litter the stage at times form a statuesque backdrop to the main drama, but at other times they are aware of the action, watching and listening. While the social dynamics are fascinating, the staging doesn’t always gel, the background actors moving in slow motion or sped up in the party scenes creating a sense of dreamlike unreality without really contributing much to the narrative momentum.

In this setting, the arrest and imprisonment of Richard’s brother Clarence (Gareth Reeves) has all the gravity of a party tiff, but the rising tensions and violence soon give rise to brutal consequences in the shifting social strata.

Rose Riley as Lady Anne

Meredith Penman is a haughty Queen Elizabeth, her condescension gradually transformed into sarcastic grief and horrified disbelief. Rose Riley is a powerfully grief-stricken Lady Anne (and a smugly arrogant teenage Prince smoking insouciantly as she torments Richard). Sandy Gore’s beturbaned Queen Margaret quickly shifts from vague doddering to something more menacing as she rains curses upon the party guests, to a keening soundtrack, while Ivan Donato is both a laid-back Hastings and a jocularly threatening Tyrell. Kevin MacIsaac is a drunken King Edward and a stoic Richmond. Reeves deftly handles the Bishop and Catesby in addition to Clarence while James Lugton juggles Rivers, the Mayor and Ratcliffe. It is a tribute to the flexibility of the actors that their multiple characters are so clearly delineated with so little in the way of costume changes – or even chances to leave the stage.

But it is Mulvany who drives the action. She is cunning and sly as Richard – with a gentle Southern accent – but also incredibly charming, funny and human, inviting the audience to relish in her victories, however macabre, and celebrate her conquests.

While casting Mulvany as the misogynistic Richard draws attention to many relevant ideas about gender in Shakespeare’s play – the audience twitters at the irony of lines like “when men are ruled by women” and “men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes” – Mulvany is deliberately not playing the role as Queen Richard. The real power and thrust of her performance is in the exploration of physical difference.

Radiotherapy treatment for childhood cancer left Mulvany with severe spinal malformation, which she embraces – or simply no longer needs to fight or conceal – in her visceral depiction of the “bunch-back’d” king.

A fraternal hair-mussing from Clarence almost overbalances her – a reminder of Richard’s physical vulnerability – but it is the accumulation of derision that is most fatiguing, from Anne’s spitting “lump of foul deformity” to the withering curses of Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York (Sarah Woods), which elicit some of the most sincere expressions from the king – a slight slipping of the smile. Yet Richard still exudes incredible power, with a rapier-like sarcastic wit and a dissembling that swings from cunning lies to bulldozer denials. Her wooing of the shell-shocked, raging Lady Anne is captivating – Mulvany’s depiction of a character ‘acting’ is masterful – and one of the dramatic climaxes of the show.

Mulvany’s performance is potent enough that Richard’s lies, scheming and murderous impulses are understandable – if not wholly forgivable – and his slipping into the paranoid, self-destructive rages of the later acts elicits pity rather than revulsion.

Shakespeare’s text is judiciously trimmed and streamlined to give the play a sleek, fast-paced momentum and it has plenty of resonance given the contemporary political climate: Richard’s raging disbelief that the citizenry hasn’t embraced him, his gathering of props – such as bishop and Bible – to give his image credulity, and the brazen lies whose audacity leave characters stunned and speechless are all too familiar.

Swinging wildly from entertaining to brutal at the drop of a hat, Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 is powerfully visceral. Mulvany’s Richard comes across so human and vulnerable that you can’t help wonder if, had he been spared the systematic abuse and rejection, the horror and bloodshed might have been avoided – but perhaps that’s just what Richard wants you to think. Mulvany borrows lines from the penultimate scene in Henry VI, Part 3 for a heart-rending final monologue, which the audience greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Richard 3 plays the Sydney Opera House until April 1, the Canberra Theatre Centre from April 6-15 and Arts Centre Melbourne from April 20 to May 7


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