Pentire Street Productions formed two years ago as a student group, creating professional work over various media; their latest venture is a production of Shakespeare’s infamous history play Richard III. It has been adapted and transported to 1960s London, where the Krays reign supreme and hold the East End in terror – in a nod to these famous twins, Richard himself is split into two distinct characters. Richard wants the Firm rather than the crown, the Cousins’ War (or War of the Roses) descends into gang warfare, and the ‘Princess’ needs to be dealt with…
The chances are you’re familiar with some aspects of the story (whether it’s Shakespeare’s version or the real truth): Edward IV dies, leaving his young son to inherit the throne, but instead his youngest brother Richard takes over – ultimately challenged by the eventual Henry VII and killed at the Battle of Bosworth.
Whilst the concept of this production is a sound and interesting one, it unfortunately doesn’t live up to its potential. The idea of splitting Richard into two is a really innovative idea; he can appear quite two-faced in his interactions with the audience and certain characters, and there are certainly times where he is more contemplative as opposed to wanting to take direct action. However, when it comes down to it, one of the Richards is left with little to do but skulk around while the other takes the lion’s share of the lines. You do wonder whether the lesser-used Richard is actually there, as stated in the show’s description; he seems much more like a figment of the other’s imagination.
On the whole, that’s where the production’s troubles lie: in the adaptation. A lot more care needs to be taken when re-jigging a play, and it almost seems like they gave up partway through the second half, as plot hole and confusion reign. Richard’s wife Anne runs off to join Henry’s campaign and is alive at the end (just because Shakespeare tampered with history, doesn’t mean it should be further vandalised!) – to fit with the gangster theme (and the truth), it would fit better for her to run away but end up murdered.
The change of the Princes in the Tower to the Princess is even more bizarre… As interesting as it is to consider a female heir, it makes no sense for the rest of the play – especially as the production sloppily retains the lines about the brothers having been killed, as well as then bringing in another sister (none of whom we see). You see, near the end, Richard decides he needs to marry the Princes’ sister (Elizabeth) to strengthen his claim to the throne – if the heir is a girl, why not just marry her rather than kill her? Why mention the unseen boys at all?
It’s also a shame to lose Margaret of Anjou (a former queen), as a bitter & slightly scary matriarch who has lost her family would fit perfectly. Some of her lines may have been assimilated by other characters (I know the play well, but not enough to be certain), but either way this idea doesn’t really work.
I guess you have to consider budget quite significantly, however there is almost too much doubling (or in one case, sextupling) to keep track of. You get to the point where you know for certain that it’s a different character, but who they are and what they’re doing is a bit of a mystery. It leaves the actors with no real chance to develop their characters properly, and the audience scratching their heads. Again, this links back to the adaptation. Pare back the content and everything will become a lot clearer.
There’s also a desperate need for smoother transitions between scenes. The tactic employed here is to blackout and have the actors rush off (whether their characters are dead or alive) in preparation for the next scene – where some music accompanies the darkness this is fine, however even this is inconsistent. In Shakespeare’s day, scenes would almost flow into one another; actors coming on for the next scene and beginning while the others exit. There is an argument for that idea to be used in this production occasionally – the theatre may be small, but there are multiple entrance/exit points available.
The set is simple but effective: a typical drinks bar adorned with black and white framed photos of important family members, positioned according to their status within the Firm. As the theatre itself is in the basement of a pub it seems equally fitting.
Standout performances come from the two Richards, Duncan Mitchell and Samuel Parkinson – even if the latter is criminally underused. Parkinson sets a tremendously creepy tone at the very beginning of the play, as he’s given the gift of the early lines of the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, and draws the audience in with insistent stares. Mitchell combines well with his onstage brother – some of the best moments are when the two of them are in complete unison.
My verdict? An innovative concept that simply doesn’t live up to its potential, leaving the audience (& Shakespeare) in confusion – the winter of our discontent, indeed…
Richard III runs at Barons Court Theatre until 19 November 2017. Tickets are available to reserve online or buy on the door.