The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s stage is transformed into a clinical, grey walled morgue for its production of Richard III, directed by Mark Rosenblatt and starring Reece Dinsdale as a Richard that could almost place us in 1940s Germany – his moustache, side-swept black hair and costuming along with his ‘SS’-style guards all create a visual as well as symbolic comparison. Dinsdale is charismatic and even comic when he needs to be, and in the first half particularly you feel the audience is on his side. A darker side of him emerges in the later acts, but Dinsdale never over-acts. Richard’s final scenes include his ‘horse’ actually being his own bed pushed around by the cast and he is ‘defeated’ not by an individual Richmond (who never in fact appears in this production) but by the cast as he is tangled in rope. This might suggest that by this final battle it is Richard’s inner turmoil and private loss of sanity that destroys him, rather than any heroic future king. Even so, we never get a full sense of Richard as a king driven mad by power. The setting instead highlights a fractured state, rather than an individual fractured mind. Characters are executed by strangling with black bags over their heads; corpses under white sheets are wheeled on stage into the autopsy room.
With this setting in mind, Rosenblatt does a fantastic job at creating a sense of fear for characters without allies or who are, unlike Richard, not two steps ahead. We see a character, such as Lady Anne, alone in this harsh, grey world and can truly recognise her isolation once her allies are gone. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was an excellent Queen Elizabeth, so proud and self-assured in the first half, but gradually driven to desperation as she becomes more and more isolated by Richard’s tyranny.
Yet Rosenblatt’s production doesn’t quite come together. The small cast, who often swap characters and even genders, leaves the audience feeling a little lost at times, especially when the minimalistic costuming doesn’t always help us differentiate between characters. And with so many characters missing (their lines delivered through radios or by telephone) and others doubled up, we never really get a feel for Richard’s court. While a focus on each character’s personal grievances and fears is evident, the bareness of the stage both in design and in cast leaves the audience feeling there is not much at stake. Richard’s descent into madness does not feel central, and without it or any driving force behind his actions, the plot coasts along with little dramatic suspense.
Yet with its stunning design and a charismatic yet malignant Dinsdale as its Richard, Richard III makes for a highly entertaining and stylised production with some unusual modern twists. Richard III is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until October 17th. You can purchase tickets here.