Richard III was our second open air Shakespearean theatre experience within 36 hours. The superb Twelfth Night re-imagined on a Sunday afternoon at Regent’s Park had left us in a thoroughly good mood at the playful vagaries of the British weather, at Shakespeare’s slapstick humour and complex characterisation. Then barely a mile away, if that, we had the treat of this mad tragedy from the Iris Theatre, a collaborative young company based at the Actors’ Church, St Paul’s Covent Garden.
Shakespeare was never going to let biographical fairness stand in the way of good stage villainy, or historical accuracy deprive him of a good gag. I couldn’t help thinking, as both these productions pulled in and actively involved the audiences, having us dancing in our aisles and doing Illyrian waves at the Open Air Theatre, that Shakespeare would have loved these shows. They certainly made him live and, in spite of the large number of deaths in Richard III, left us feeling very much alive. Perhaps that was the point of those deaths, to do just that.
At Covent Garden, the roses and other gorgeously tended flowers in the churchyard made for a truly heavenly setting as the stage moved around from beautifully-lit bower beneath the trees, to church porch, and inside to the nave and out again. We moved with it, the actors giving us audience directions from Shakespeare’s scripts. “Come, let us away!” and so on. I imagine a top requirement for auditioning for Iris must be the ability to project and in this environment, despite the rather wonderful acoustic created by the soaring brick tenements on either side, there might have been much mummery but mumbling was not allowed. I’d like to see some of those TV actors attempt this challenge. David Hywel Baynes was extraordinary in the title role. His picture looks quite nice in the programme and I kept having to check to make sure it was the same guy. He was wicked, mad, manic, scheming, laughing and making us laugh. His facial features had the complexion of a living Yoric, a skull brought to life – just. Such evil energy spewed out. Hateful and yet totally watchable, horribly human, Baynes rose to the challenge of this long – too long – play and drew us along with him for hour after hour.
Would it constitute heresy for a good Fleet Street sub-editor to take a pencil to this play? I know it’s Shakespeare, but still. For me, its length was the only problem. True, this takes it close to its original nature, and in so doing gives the actors a run at the unabridged roles.
I was particularly enthralled by Nick Howard-Brown, who brought blazing realism to the Duke of Clarence, but especially to his Duke of Buckingham. From the moment he set foot in the action, he demonstrated an extraordinary presence. It was, if we can slip this one past the Hunchback, quite spine-tingling. Mark Hawkins was wonderful as the crazed Queen Margaret and also completely unrecognisable as the same person when he came on as Catesby. How do these people do that?
Anne-Marie Piazza as both Prince Edwards was so innocent but also at one point, in the church itself, let us hear her extraordinary voice as she sang a Benedictine-style chant; close your eyes and it could have been a ten-year-old boy treble standing there. I’ve heard some dreadfully dull tunes in Shakespeare productions in past years but recently there seems to have been a dramatic improvement. The music, which was so important to the playwright, was exquisitely done at St Paul’s, as indeed it also was at the Open Air Theatre in the Park, with a variety of instruments, the voice and lovely tunes filling the afternoon and dusk in both places with song. These young “triple threat” actors emerging from their drama and stage schools are so talented, and so impassioned, it always feels such a privilege to watch them.
For a monarch as much dug-up as Richard, the graveyard of this fine London church seems a more fitting if less historically accurate site than the Leicester car park. How the poor man’s lines rang in my head as I passed the locked tube station at Covent Garden and thought how handy a horse would have been.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Following his lauded performance as Brutus in last year’s Julius Caesar, New York-based David Hywel Baynes is returning to the company to star in the title role. David is an Associate Artist of Iris Theatre, and Richard III is his seventh production for the company.
Director Dan Winder said: “In Romeo and Juliet, the first Iris production David appeared in, he had just one line. I have since cast him and watched him grow into a fantastic, mature actor who this year gets to play the lead and will be in almost every scene! David is a highly skilled physical actor, and I’m particularly excited to see what he brings to that specific challenge of playing Richard. With the recent discovery of Richard III’s body under the tarmac of a Leicestershire car park, the story of Richard has never been more prominent in our imaginations and so there is no better year to explore Shakespeare’s Richard; one of his most beguiling and magnetic Kings.”
Richard III by William Shakespeare
Wednesday 25 June – Friday 25 July
Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Saturday matinee at 2.30pm
Show runs 2 hours 15 minutes
Tickets: £18.00, concessions £14.00
St Paul’s Church
Bedford Street, Covent Garden
London, WC2E 9ED
Book online at www.iristheatre.com
Tickets are also available in person on the door
Wednesday 2nd July 2014
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