Theatre review: Richard III at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Richard III

Druid Theatre Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Garry Hynes
Cast: Frank Blake, Jane Brennan, Ingrid Craigie, Siobhan Cullen, Peter Daly, Zara Devlin, Garrett Lombard, Sean McGinley, Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen, Rory Nolan, John Olohan, Marty Rea

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
20 October 2018

Historically, 'the winter of discontent' recounted in Richard III comes after the turbulent War of the Roses, and in terms of when it was likely written it follows chronologically on from Shakespeare's account of those turbulent times in his three Henry VI plays. While it is undoubtedly connected both historically and as a kind of sequel, Richard III is however distinct from the earlier plays and quite different in style and content even from the later written 'prequels' Richard II, Henry IV (parts one and two) and Henry V. Richard III's closure of the Plantagenet dynasty is largely self-contained and it has almost as much drama, murder, plotting and intrigue as the other two groups of plays combined.

It's perhaps that aspect that regardless of the historical period or Shakespearean chronology reflects the pace of news in our own world today. Druid's latest Shakespeare production for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin doesn't modernise or set out to draw any overt references out of the material, but inevitably such is the insight and dramatic instinct evident in all of Shakespeare's history plays, that they continue to have contemporary resonance and relevance. It's perhaps the self-contained nature and its fast-moving series of events that make it easier to see Richard III as right up to the minute in terms of current political events.

Indeed the pace of the play and the historical complications involving the struggle for the English crown can be difficult to follow, but directing for Druid, Garry Hynes's principal aim seems to be to just keep the dramatic flow and make repeated visual references and motifs that at least give it the appearance of internal coherence and consistency. As has often been seen to be the case, a political vacuum leaves the way open for an arch-manipulator to claw their way into power, and the image of Richard rising out of what seems like a narrow grave presents a key image in this production; the grave quickly filling up from bodies before Richard himself is dropped into it (to be found almost six hundred years later when a car park is dug up in Leicester).

Another immediate distinction that is evident in Richard III as a drama is Richard's method of speaking directly to the audience, confessing to his villainy, letting them in on the plans he has to take advantage of the situation, and he doesn't even need a Twitter account to do it. It's an unusual dramatic conceit for a 'serious' history play, but Richard's methods are all about drama; plotting, dissembling, acting a role, playing and manipulating with words, spreading lies or what we would refer to now as 'fake news'. Even in that Richard III shows us that there is nothing new in the world of political ambition and the abuse of power.

Druid's staging of Richard III has been running for a few weeks now at the Abbey in Dublin, originally featuring in the 2018 Dublin Theatre Festival earlier in the month, and as such it's obviously been prepared for a long time. No-one could have known then how its treatment of what are usually off-stage killings would bear a sinister resemblance to the unfolding reports about the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi as the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Richard's method of disposing of any potential rivals or challenges to his ambitions are to have his man Catesby sit them down in a chair within what seems like the steel chamber of Richard's control, execute them with a drill-like stun gun to the head and roll them into that pit at the centre of the stage, Catesby even descends into it himself with a saw after one killing.

It's a chilling and vivid reminder of the abuses of the powerful, how such actions can be visualised in terms of a 'drama', holding onto the belief that they are controlling events and that their actions are justifiable, or at least that they are too powerful for anyone to hold them to account. Druid's production is filled with such imagery that permits connections like that to be made, lying between abstraction, symbolism and realism, a skull hanging over the stage bearing the crown that Richard's twisted form is helped to reach, the stage carrying a layer of dirt, surrounded by a steel box, its smooth surface soon disturbed by his dragged steps and crutches. With an insistence on pace and adherence to its basic themes, all of these elements come together as they often do in Shakespeare without any need for over-emphasis.

What it can benefit from in addition of course is a charismatic lead. Aaron Monaghan realises the dramatic potential for the grotesque, for the fierce intelligence of Richard's scheming, for the dark humour that is contained within the role. The supporting performances are excellent, supporting only in terms of how they are all to one extent or another puppets of Richard's will and his ability to out-wit and out-manoeuvre them ...until of course it becomes Richard's time to be rolled into the pit. That's something Shakespeare recognised from history and it's perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from his history plays, something that perhaps even offers a little cold comfort in these times. Now is indeed the winter of our discontent.

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