Richard III - Press Reviews

BBC South Yorkshire (2002) | The Times (19 March) | The Independent (20 March) |The Guardian (20 March) |The Evening Standard (20 March) |The Daily Telegraph (21 March) |The Yorkshire Post (21 March) |The Herald (21 March) |The Financial Times (23 March) | The Observer (24 March) | Mail on Sunday (24 March) | Variety (25 March) | The Stage (28 March) | AP (1 April) | Times Literary Supplement (5 April) | Shakespeare at the Centre (May 2002) | Theatre Record (June 2002)

Richard III: A Kingly Return to the Stage

BBC South Yorkshire, 2002

Kenneth Branagh made a celebrated return to the stage in "Richard III". We asked him why he chose Sheffield, and gave our verdict on the show.

He hadn't trodden the boards for ten years - but Kenneth Branagh came to Sheffield, to play Richard III at the Crucible. Why did he decide to take the part? And why here in South Yorkshire? He told BBC Radio Sheffield's Rony Robinson: Listen here.

And our theatre critic was impressed too - here's her review of the show:

Branagh's return to the stage was always going to be eagerly anticipated. And it was an undoubted success - truly entertaining theatre. The audience loved it.

Branagh's performance was agile and witty. He switched from charmer to manipulator effortlessly, and steered the production away from becoming a pantomime farce (though at times it sailed close to the wind). He is a classy performer, and he clearly enjoyed it.

But he was supported by several excellent performances. Barbara Jefford as Queen Margaret spat her copious, exquisite insults with more venom than a trapped snake. Gerard Horan as Clarence brought a third dimension to a character who can sometimes seem a little flat. The children were nauseating, but that's to be expected.

The production was complemented by the simple, classic sets. Though they didn't help with the acoustics, the unfrivolous pillars and props added a required solemnity to the play.

Perhaps my only criticism of the direction was that, by overstressing the humour earlier in the play, Richard's descent into inner turmoil, guilt and self-loathing was left a little rushed at the end. Being ultra-picky, the direction didn't always consider the acoustics of the Crucible. The actors turned their backs on sections of the audience at times, and their words got lost.

But otherwise, it was a slick crowd-pleaser which stayed true enough to the script to keep the buffs happy.

Capable Branagh, But More Venom Would Be Nice

The Times, 19 March 2002
by Benedict Nightingale

4/5 stars

Casting Kenneth Branagh as Richard III would seem a bit like casting Paddy Ashdown as Hitler or Roy of the Rovers as Mike Tyson. Could the man who made his name as a robust, caring Henry V, and was a notably fine, princely Hamlet, really twist himself into the moral, spiritual and physical shape of Shakespeare's Crookback?

That would be a challenge for any actor, let alone one who has been away from the theatre for a decade. Well, Olivier triumphed in all three roles, and Branagh, though a less versatile, less exciting performer, fares better on his return to the stage than I had dared hope. He achieves this partly by making a virtue of necessity. As directed by Michael Grandage, Sheffield's artistic supremo and Sam Mendes's chosen successor at the Donmar, Branagh gives us a Richard whose strengths include the ability to counterfeit affability, good humour, or whatever positive-seeming quality will help him to power.

This is instantly signalled in an unusual, even bizarre way. "Now is the winter of our discontent," is delivered from a Heath-Robinson contraption, part-stretcher, part-trolley, part-rack, upon which Branagh is having his limbs exercised by white-coated physiotherapists. As the angry emphasis he gives to the words "mine own deformity" show, he is determined to seem as normal as a gammy right leg and a useless left arm allow. And faking normality becomes an emotional skill, too. A calliper of leather and steel rods means he can move well; but he can play-act better.

When he advises the little princes to "repose you in the Tower", he sounds like a very considerate travel agent. When he mourns Hastings, whom he has just had killed, he might be a maudlin Victorian widow. When he puts on a show of piety before London's mayor, he sounds like good, earnest George Carey. And when he's desperate for Queen Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter, his most effective ploy is to play the polio victim, writhing painfully on the ground; but maybe that's not just an act, for Branagh's Richard is touchy about an affliction that makes him what he most hates: vulnerable.

Since these charades co-exist with lines that breezily proclaim his contempt and callousness, the effect can be very funny. Indeed, last night the Sheffield audience laughed a lot at Branagh's wry scoffs in the first half, and, to do him credit, it laughed a lot less in the second, when the now-crowned Richard gradually loses control of his land, others and himself. He sours and coarsens, as any Crookback must. And if he doesn't greatly deepen, that's partly the still immature Shakespeare's fault.

What's still somewhat lacking is venom, darkness, and the sense of evil; yet Branagh's performance is well worth catching, as is Grandage's brisk, spare, punchy production. Despite the weird plastic macs they anachronistically wear, Gerard Horan, Danny Webb and most of the other supporting performers are fine, and one of their number is exceptional. Who can be so imperiously baleful, so majestically vindictive as Barbara Jefford? She did it playing Volumnia to Ralph Fiennes. She does it again playing the terrible, terrifying Queen Margaret to Branagh's Richard. Long may this great veteran prosper.
(Thanks, Ngoc)

Back on the Boards, Branagh Moves Effortlessly from Music Hall to Murder

The Independent, 20 March 2002
by Paul Taylor

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious spring in Sheffield where the Crucible Theatre is enjoying a box-office bonanza.

It's 10 years since the multi-tasking Kenneth Branagh trod the boards. And here he is breaking his self-imposed exile for Michael Grandage, artistic director-elect of the Donmar Warehouse, who is a dab-hand at luring screen luminaries to the North, as we saw last year in the commercially and artistically successful Edward II, staring Joseph Fiennes.

Trusting in the narrative drive of the piece and admirably light on "concepts", this powerful production begins with a startling spectacle that looks, at first blush, like a kinky advertisement for Calvin Klein male underwear.

Branagh's Richard is discovered in his knickers arched over backwards and strapped into a rack-like machine that's clearly designed to help correct the character's physical deformities. It's a novel position from which to deliver that opening soliloquy. He's again found clamped to this rack on the eve of the final battle when the ghosts of his victims exploit his captive state.

In between these two episodes, buckled into a corset and calliper, Branagh gives a very funny performance as a Richard who plays up to the audience like a nippy music hall comedian and who treats the other people on stage to the kind of hilariously bare-faced hypocrisy that paralyses opposition. He's exceptionally adept at making even a line of dialogue sound like an aside and at entering into a deadpan snigger with the punters behind the backs – or before the very eyes – of the rest of them.

His reaction to one of his little nephews ("so wise, so young, they say do ne'er live long") is pronounced in a way that might well win him this year's WC Fields Child Mentoring Award.

On television recently, Branagh impersonated another deeply evil historical figure: General Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's second-in-command who masterminded the logistics of the Final Solution. It was a chilling performance: all smooth, brisk charm that offered glimpses of the lethal icebergs floating in the depths of his eyes It was also, rightly, purely filmic, calibrated to a man whose evil was not theatrical.

By contrast, Richard is self-consciously a creature of the stage. A potential problem is that, in the continuous long-shot of theatre, Branagh is too mild-looking to cut a compellingly creepy figure. The production instead plays to his considerable strengths as a stage comedian, darkening this aspect in the jolting suddenness with which he can switch from mocking matiness to brutal violence. Let's hope he doesn't leave it another 10 years.
(Thanks, Anna)

Richard III

The Guardian, 20 March 2002
by Michael Billington

4 stars

Richard III can be seen in one of two ways: as the culmination of an epic cycle or as an isolated vehicle for a virtuoso star.

With Kenneth Branagh returning to the stage after a 10 year gap it is very much the latter in Michael Grandage's new production; and, while Branagh is magnificent in the play's first half, in the end he does not quite go the whole hog.

First seen stretched out half naked on what looks like a mix of torture machine and traction engine, Branagh's Richard assembles himself for public display; and what we see is Richard as the consummate actor. To the audience, Branagh is a villainous compere who announces "the new delivered Hastings" as if he were bringing on a variety act: to his fellow characters, however, Branagh offers a mask of piety, pity or pugnacity as occasion demands.

So skilful is he at playing the double-Gloucester that when he offers the infant Duke of York his dagger "with all my heart" we roar with laughter at his hidden violence. This is a Richard who follows to the letter his intention to "seem a saint when most I play the devil."

For the first half, Branagh is truly magnetic: less the satanic joker of Olivier tradition than a masked Proteus. But, once Richard is crowned and has no need to play the hypocrite, one yearns for a touch of genuine diabolism.

Branagh has moments of genuine power as when he turns the coldest of shoulders in Buckingham with an icy "Tut, tut." But where Olivier chilled the blood on "Is the chair empty? Is the throne unswayed" Branagh gets a laugh; and, if the intention is to reveal Richard's ultimate hollowness, then he needs to deliver his self-exploratory eve of battle soliloquy with more deliberation. It remains a very good performance, with echoes of Branagh's screen Iago, rather than a great one.

And the same may be said for Grandage's production which is clearly and fluently staged in the style of his Crucible 'Edward II'. Like that, it is superbly lit by Tim Mitchell who creates astonishing images through diagonal lighting or fierce overhead wattage. And Christopher Oram's design with its massy background pillars clears a space for the central action.

Even if the mixed-period costumes have a monochrome drabness, there are still some colourful supporting performances. Barbara Jefford as Queen Margaret is white-haired, baleful and beautifully spoken. Danny Webb's Buckingham is a sharp-witted sidekick finally exposed as a cringing wreck. And Claire Price's Lady Anne and Phyllis Logan's Queen Elizabeth effectively show their initial revulsion at Richard turning to sexual fascination.

But the star is Branagh and, even if his performance is not exactly a turning point in the play's long history, it shows why we need him back on the British stage.
(Thanks, Anna)

Ken's Back on Top with Richard

Evening Standard, 20 March 2002
by Carole Woddis

Kenneth Branagh's Richard III is little short of sensational. Back on stage after a decade away doing films (and directing the boxoffice-busting The Play What I Wrote), it's an irony that his return comes not at the hands of the National or the RSC but under Michael Grandage at Sheffield (who is shortly to leave and come south to take charge of the Donmar in the footsteps of Sam Mendes).

Branagh and Grandage's revelatory take on the villain who kills and murders his way to the throne like some mafia boss, or latter-day political tyro, is to reveal him as a cross between a psychotic, a Christ figure and a stirring warrior. I can't have been the only one to have been saddened when Richard's Boar - designer Christopher Oram gives Branagh a wonderfully dashing red doublet with a prickly golden spine - meets his appointed death at Bosworth Field. But the knockout is the contraption in which we first see Richard - suspended as if in some giant electro-convulsive machine, legs akimbo, arms out-stretched.

This is the image either of crucifixion or redemption, repeated just before Bosworth Field as the ghosts of those murdered by Richard come back to haunt him and serves to underline his sense of self-loathing. Deformity has really driven this Richard mad.

Extraordinarily moving and played by Branagh with a depth and emotional nakedness we've seldom seen from him before, it comes as a coda to a performance of breathtaking command, sudden mood switches and sardonic humour.

Branagh's Richard is also one of the most physical I can remember, wrestling Claire Price's eloquent Lady Anne to the ground, seductively nestling in the lap of Phyllis Logan's Queen Elizabeth (whose two little sons he has just had murdered in the Tower) like some child seeking sanctuary.

Elsewhere, Grandage's production, with its looming stone pillars, slanting light and martial percussion, boasts a stirring if over-glamorous Queen Margaret from Barbara Jefford and generally conveys honest intelligence, if missing the cumulative thrill of the play as part of an over-arching theme as witnessed in last year's RSC Histories.

Until 10 April, Crucible Theatre Sheffield. Box office: 0114 249 6000.
(Thanks, Ngoc)

Branagh Brilliantly Conjures Up the Psycho in the Basement of Imagination

Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2002
by Charles Spencer

Kenneth Branagh seemed unlikely casting for Shakespeare's "poisonous bunch-backed toad". As an actor, he has usually exuded wholesome decency rather than conjuring up the psycho who lurks in the dark basements of our imagination. He has, however, turned in some memorably malign performances in recent years, and there has always been something slightly creepy about those strangely thin, much-mocked lips. I suspect he was chiefly attracted to Richard III because of the star he has always seemed anxiously eager to emulate - Laurence Olivier.

Olivier was a famous Henry V, and in his turn Branagh was a famous Henry V. Olivier played Richard III, and now Branagh is playing him, too. How long, one wonders, will it be before the former wunderkind plays Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Less than a decade, I wager.

But Branagh swept away almost all my reservations during his compelling performance in Michael Grandage's fine new production. He isn't as thrilling as Antony Sher on crutches, or as grotesquely comic as Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes's great RSC production. He does, however, superbly capture Crookback's intelligence, sardonic humour, scary mood swings and, most disconcertingly of all, his vulnerability.

This is a Richard who has been both shaped and psychologically warped by his deformity. We first catch sight of him stripped to his underpants on a grotesque machine - looking more like an instrument of torture - designed to support his malformed body while he sleeps. The great first speech is delivered as he writhes pitiably around on the floor, struggling to get into the leg iron and corset that allow him to stand straight and walk; and after the great wooing scene with Lady Anne (Claire Price), he seems joyously incredulous that such a wretched specimen has succeeded in seducing such a beauty.

As in all the best performances of this role, you find yourself warming to Branagh's Richard despite all your reservations. He's so much cleverer, funnier and more vital than anyone else on stage, and in his great soliloquies he makes the audience complicit in his actions, barking out an interrogatory "What?" as if astonished that we could question his actions or his motives. Branagh, in short, has the actorly relish the role requires - never more so than in his moments of fake piety, when he adopts a hilarious little voice of fawning humility. He also has the necessary unpredictability. As he cracks jokes with his hired killers, it is a real jolt when he grabs one of them by the hair and boots him in the balls, yet Branagh persuades you to pity him at the end, when his luck runs out and his tortured mind collapses. This is a Richard who hasn't quite succeeded in slaughtering his own concept of sin.

But though Branagh dominates the show, he doesn't steal it. Grandage's lucid production, on a characteristically spare and suggestive design by Christopher Oram, succeeds for once in making sense of the fantastically complex political back story.

And there are a host of strong supporting performances, with especially fine work from Danny Webb, who brilliantly presents Buckingham as Richard's savvy spiv of a spin doctor; from Phyllis Logan as the grieving Queen Elizabeth; and from the superbly eloquent Barbara Jefford as the vengeful Queen Margaret, haunting the play with her catalogue of past horrors.

It's great to have Branagh back on stage, and to see Grandage so confidently confirming that he is the ideal man to replace Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse

He's Back: Kenneth Branagh Returns to the Stage as Richard III

Yorkshire Post, 21 March 2002
by Lynda Murdin

It was almost a foregone conclusion that Kenneth Branagh would be good as Shakespeare's evil monarch. But is he great?

Certainly, I can't think of another actor currently of suitable age who could give as impeccable and impressive a performance. But whatever their skill, people with exceptional talent outstrip everyday criticism. Instead, they enter a generational league such as: is David Beckham better than Stanley Matthews?

The question now is: how does Branagh rank against legends? After his Henry V, he was compared to Laurence Olivier who also gave what many believe to be the definitive interpretation of the Bard's "bottled spider".

Since then, Antony Sher and Ian McKellen have both turned in exceptional performances.

They all presented startling images – the witty and evil hunchback, the scuttling misshapen creature on NHS crutches, the fascist leader.

Directed by Michael Grandage, associate director of Sheffield Theatres, Branagh brings us the baby scarred at birth, the physically vulnerable disabled human being, rolling on the floor to get dressed and needing support from a corset and leg calipers to stand.

His first entry is a surprise. He is wheeled onto the dark, inhospitable stage wearing only white underpants (it would make better sense if he were totally naked – but that would indeed be a sensational move for such a superstar). He is lying on a sort of stretching rack which looks like a Heath Robinson instrument of torture but is, presumably, meant to be the 15th century equivalent of a homecare medical aid. Prone, Branagh begins the famous opening speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent…"

This is the first reminder that theatre has been the poorer for his absence.

His best actor's tool is his voice, blessed with a huge range and dexterity of delivery. As Richard murders his way to the top, he employs it to full advantage, coaxing clarity and layers of meaning from every line.

He never loses an opportunity to relish his character's ironic humour, his mocking pride in his manipulative duplicity bringing contemporary vocal inflections to the text and earning a more than usual number of laughs.

When mobile, Branagh limps stiff-legged at an arachnid's urgent speed, using one arm to gesture animatedly as the other hangs limp and bound.

He's as genial as a party host when meeting other nobles but clearly a bit of a tricky Dicky when instructing henchmen.

The first half lasts one hour 50 minutes, by which time I judged Branagh to be very good, very thorough but not great. In my own opinion better than Sher, who tried a little too hard, but not as electric as McKellen. (I was born too late to see Olivier on stage, alas).

Then something remarkable happened. Once crowned, Richard became ugly. As Branagh's face changed, so did his demeanour. His villainy and vulnerability struggled to gain ascendancy.

Visual expression was later given to those two qualities by his extraordinary battledress. Edged along his back by skeletal spine bones, it suggests aggressive armour while being redolent of spina bifida.

Suddenly, this actor was as transfixing as any could possibly have ever been. So, if not truly great overall, then Branagh was well on the way to achieving greatness by the end of the run.

There is, of course, much more to Richard III than the central character. But however brilliant everything else may be, the play always tends to flag whenever he is off stage. There's no getting away from scenes where nobles stand around in groups trading names in a confusing way.

But Grandage brings a sense of sweeping momentum by swiftly juxtaposing such large-scale scenes with smaller, intimate ones.

This director's high-quality production values have now become a house-style for Shakespeare at the Crucible. As in last year's Edward II, which starred Hollywood's Joseph Fiennes, Tim Mitchell uses lighting design to astounding effect. There's no need for scenery, other than the backdrop of monumental stone pillars, when Mitchell can create such atmospheric spaces. They include a red-bathed Bosworth battlefield where hand-to-hand fighting takes place in thrilling style.

Among a cast of 20, Danny Webb skilfully makes Buckingham akin to a modern-day, self-serving political chancer. His is a very natural performance, contrasted by the equally admirable, but more conventionally theatrical, style adopted by Barbara Jefford as the increasingly enraged Queen Margaret.

Other powerful support is provided by Phyllis Logan as Queen Elizabeth, mother of the murdered princes, and Claire Price as Lady Anne, wooed by Richard over her husband's corpse.

But, however talented the other actors, this production, happily staged in Yorkshire and not London, is really a case of Branagh's back. Sound the trumpets. And queue for a standby seat.
(Thanks, Ngoc)

Theatre: Richard III, Crucible, Sheffield

The Herald (United Kingdom), 21 March 2002

Kenneth Branagh's Richard III may not be the most fiendish you'll ever see - Antony Sher's scurrying, crutch-hopping black beetle and Ian McKellen's blatantly fascist dictator take prizes for that. But on his return to the stage after a decade, Branagh certainly takes Michael Grandage's new production of Richard III by the scruff of the neck and wrings fresh wonders from it.

Here is Branagh like we've never seen him, painfully naked in his emotional openness, if still the commanding presence we've come to associate with his Henry V and recent tv appearances as Shackleton and Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich. Branagh is a born leader, which makes him a natural for this most maligned but popular villain, who cheats and murders his way to the English throne. Branagh and director Michael Grandage, who is to take over from Sam Mendes at the Donmar, also find a sensationally arresting visual metaphor for Richard's disturbed personality. This Richard's relationship with his physical deformity is a case of arrested development, with Branagh pinned to a contraption in a pose somewhere between mental patient suffering electro-convulsive treatment and Christ on the cross.

It is a performance of dizzying energy and manipulative prowess, with Branagh spinning instanteously from tearful plaintiff to sardonic, cold-hearted killer and the Sheffield audience took him to their heart.

Grandage's impressive production, with its grey stone pillars and slanting medieval light, surrounds him with fine support, not least from Phyllis Logan as Edward IV's unfortunate widow, Elizabeth, Claire Price as an unusually credible Lady Anne and Barbara Jefford's strongly spoken but far too sensible cursing crone, Queen Margaret.

The evening though belongs to Branagh. He's a knockout
(Thanks, Ngoc)

Branagh's Richard Stands Tall
With the return of Kenneth Branagh to the stage after 10 years comes a hotline to Shakespeare, as he speaks the old words like his mother tongue, writes Alastair Macaulay

Financial Times, 23 March 2002
by Alastair Macaulay

As Shakespeare's misshapen villain Richard III, Kenneth Branagh starts, startlingly, on the rack. Richard opens the play ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), and Branagh, returning to stage acting after 10 years, prefaces this by showing us not the royal boar's fierce exterior but the raw white pork beneath: the soft crabmeat under the defensive shell. Naked but for his underpants, he lies stretched out, as starlike as Leonardo's Homo Vitruvius - but locked to the metal apparatus of what appears to be a Procrustean bed designed to torture him. But this steel contraption is, you realise, the only bed that can stretch Richard's deformities and rest them. There's even a steel head-brace; it looks like his crown of thorns.

This Richard - as you soon see - is so crippled he can't stand erect without an armour-like corset and calipers. When fully dressed, he looks little different from the rest of the court. In public, he nearly disguises the limp of one leg and the limpness of one arm - nearly. But in one later scene, his nephews the little princes playfully strip him of his clothes above the waist, and then play unfeelingly upon his spine, until he cries out in pain. (It seems that it's this injury that finally decides their uncle to have them assassinated. ) When they've gone, he remains unclothed above the waist a while; and his whole upper body hangs forward, like an ape's. Yet Branagh doesn't play Richard as a soft/hard oxymoron, contrasting the privately vulnerable inner cripple against the publicly cruel outward monster. No: his Richard is a subtle actor: a complex role-player who, for sheer effect upon others, can employ both soft and hard sides of himself within a single scene, and who can also - both in public and when by himself - call upon the finest gradations of suavity, wit, menace, depression, defiance. He can be so funny or direct that you look forward to his every return to the stage. And yet you never know who he is or how he'll seem next.

Unless you count a few guest-star performances in The Play What I Wrote, in which he played himself, Branagh has not acted onstage since his 1992 Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2002, he is no longer a truly young man. Yet he's much as I remember him: a winningly direct stage performer, remarkably unaffected, capable of high energy or simple stillness or, in speech, dazzling speed. In ensemble, he responds beautifully to other players, and galvanises them by his absorption. And his timing is terrific. I want to compare him to some of the other movie stars Britain has seen onstage in recent years (Isabelle Huppert, Kevin Spacey, Nicole Kidman, Donald Sutherland, Jude Law. ) But the stakes change with Shakespeare: we're on a different plane of expression. I can compare him to a few male movie stars who've played Shakespeare in Britain. Beside (say) Anthony Hopkins's Antony and King Lear, or Dustin Hoffman's Shylock, Branagh is not overall, more imaginative or powerful or characterful. What he has instead is simply a hotline to Shakespeare: he speaks the old words like his mother-tongue. One thinks of Ian McKellen as a greater Shakespeare expert yet, but his Richard III (especially onstage) was all cold surface and calculation; whereas Derek Jacobi's was just fruity - indeed, pulpy. With Branagh, the drama is in the utterance. Today, the chief "movie-star-plays-Shakeseare-onstage" comparison is with Ralph Fiennes. Twelve or more years ago (before Fiennes became a movie star of equal magnitude), people used to compare them, respectively, to Olivier and Gielgud: Branagh/Olivier the virile athletic charmer versus Fiennes/Gielgud the noble melancholic poet. But that was never more than a foolish conceit, and their recent Shakespeare roles utterly collapse it. All of Fiennes's recent Shakespeare roles (Hamlet, Richard II, Coriolanus) show that, for all his beauty of looks and sound, he can't communicate clearly in verse-drama (his only excellent stage role in the last 10 years has been Chekhov's Ivanov, in 1997) - whereas Branagh is so relaxed in Shakespeare's language that he can, it seems, do what he likes with it.

As with all the great Shakespearians, he makes some lines seem so new- minted you rush back to the text to check it, and find he's revealing anew what was already written. "Look," he says to Queen Elizabeth in such cut-the-crap tones that the audience laughs aloud "what is done cannot be amended". Or the way he says, "I like you, lads" to the Murderers, as if he and they were in a sitcom.

The two best Richards I've seen are on celluloid: Olivier's famous film performance, and Ian Holm's 1964 RSC interpretation, beautifully preserved in its BBC-TV recording. How does Branagh compare? Well, Olivier's Richard is, in fact, the opposite of Branagh's. But he reminds you what Branagh misses: the truly wicked glee on the one hand and the damned black-heartedness on the other. Branagh's style - frank, immediate, chameleonlike - is much closer to Holm's. Yet it's Holm's performance, even now, that seems more modern than Branagh's and more poetic, more pellucid in verbal utterance and more transparently revealing the shifting layers of Richard 3/8s guile, malice, and misery. By comparison, Branagh's performance feels like a master-sketch, not fully achieved or resolved. All congratulations to the Sheffield Crucible and to the director Michael Grandage in bringing Branagh back to the stage. Ten years has been too long - not just for us, but for him, during the time of life when so gifted a stage animal should be mastering as many leading-man roles (non-Shakespearian, too) as possible.
(Thanks, Ngoc)

The King's Cross
Branagh's range and limbs are stretched in a superb Richard III that is worth seeing for one performance alone - and it's not even his...

The Observer, 24 March 2002

If you want to see Shakespeare done properly, go to Sheffield.

The effortless reach and detail of Michael Grandage's productions at the Crucible must be making the RSC spit. His Richard III begins in anguish, with the future king stretched on a torturing, therapeutic rack, his arms splayed out like Christ's on the cross. It sidles into humour, and expands into grandeur. It captures both strands of this hybrid tragic-historical play: the progress of the capering solitary villain, and the sense of dynastic consequence. It's the fastest-selling production in the Crucible's 30-year history.

Much of the audience has apparently come to see Kenneth Branagh - back on the stage after an absence of 10 years. They'll not be disappointed. Though Branagh doesn't have the basilisk quality of Olivier's loping knave - he's more stolid, and more spluttery - he uses his naturally cajoling presence to create a psychologically coherent Richard whose bitterness is bred by fear.

Slipping down from that rack - on which he's later visited by his nightmare ghosts before the Battle of Bosworth Field - he becomes as floppy and unprotected as a baby, his limbs sprawling softly. He straps on his irony with his armour. Complicity with the audience - the essential Richard quality - comes naturally to Branagh who, lightly bantering, emphasises the quizzical notes at the end of his lines. These put everything he says into quotation marks. He bleats with false reluctance on accepting the crown, then flips it aside as if it were a paperclip. He puts on a diddums voice to tell his about-to-be-murdered nephews that they can, 'with all my heart', have his dagger. His tones are velvety when he makes up to Danny Webb's (under-inflected) Buckingham. The thing he lacks is knock-out snakiness.

Grandage makes Branagh appear (though not throughout) in his pants. It's the only mistake in a magnificent production. Christopher Oram isn't always picking up awards for his designs, because what he does is so perfectly at the service of the play and actors that it's often barely noticeable. But together Oram and the wonderful lighting designer Tim Mitchell carve a myriad places and atmospheres from a single dark cavernous area. Through palatial black pillars, occasionally decorated with banners, you glimpse smoky depths which can look like sulphurous hell fumes. A plank of light cuts across the darkness and traps the doomed Clarence in its imprisoning beam. The lit space shrinks and swells, dwarfing some characters, inflating others, creating crowds out of small groups, or becoming, with a shift of colour, a misty red battlefield.

This production would be worth seeing for one performance alone. Barbara Jefford, one of the greatest of Shakespearean actors, brings a Grecian grandeur to the part of Queen Margaret. She slowly uncoils her limbs to utter her lamentations, seeming to grow in size as she does so. She expresses utter contempt by pointing up an insulting alliteration (forever conjoining 'marquess' and 'malapert') or by a casual gesture: she lifts aside Richard's throne as if she were putting out the rubbish. She delivers her curses with the gravity they deserve: she may be a vengeful woman, but she's a true prophet.
(Thanks, Ngoc)

Mail on Sunday, 24 March 2002
By Georgina Brown

4 stars out of 5

Richard III is the worst – and the very best – of Shakespeare's baddies. He's the funniest; the one with the most bare-faced cheek. Early on in the play, Crookback Dick makes a pass at Lady Anne as she weeps by the corpse of her beloved father-in-law, Henry VI.

Bear in mind the small matter that Richard murdered both him and her husband and that she knows it and hates him for it. Then consider the fact that in Michael Grandage's excellent production, which opened this week, Kenneth Branagh's Richard (a triumphant return to the stage after a decade of movies) has one leg in a full length calliper, an arm hanging withered and useless, and the thin lips that Ken was cursed with.

And yet, in a flash, he has pinned her to the floor and seconds later she is lying on top of him and in no hurry to get off. Moreover, she is willing to submit to his monstrous proposal of marriage with a kiss.

It's a far-fetched scenario, I know, but it's a measure of Branagh's marvellous performance that this Richard is so perversely and diabolically attractive, so devilishly amusing and, yes, dead sexy, that I think I'd be doing exactly the same thing given half the chance.

The audacity of Ken's dastardly Dick knows no bounds. The moment he has got what he wants and sent Anne (Claire Price) on her way, he turns to us and explains – those thin lips grinning from ear to ear – exactly what he's up to: "I'll have her, but I'll not keep her long," he scoffs, so casual, so confident, so throw-away. And, like Anne, even then we can't resist him.

The opening speech skillfully sets up the kind of man this Richard is. He delivers it from a rack, a torturous contraption of weights and pulleys designed to yank his deformed body into better shape. It looks agonizing, but Ken's Richard appears to feel no pain, just as he seems to be immured from any compassion for his victims or guilt for his crimes.

The only emotions he expresses are hatred of his deformity and passionate determination to get his revenge on those better endowed by dominating them, which generally means murdering them. He is a heartless psychopath and, above all, a consummate actor and manipulative genius who revels in the brilliance of his infinitely various performances.

He can play the wooer or the penitent but he's at his most persuasive, and funny, as a contemporary politician. Indeed, there's more than an echo of Rory Bremner's gallery of politicians in Branagh's all-spinning tricky Dicky: a bit of Peter Mandelson here, a touch of Alastair Campbell there, and lots of Tony Blair. While the production is timeless – the costumes are medieval meets 21st Century – the thoroughly modern, bamboozling Branagh brings it bang up to date.

Where he and this production fall short of greatness is in the final act. Having achieved his goal and won the crown, Richard falls out with his henchman Buckingham (a wonderfully wicked Danny Webb) and suddenly becomes prey to insecurities and fears.

It's hard, however, to engage with his despair; it comes out of nowhere since nothing in Branagh's performance until now has hinted at a conscience capable of being disturbed.

Never mind. He's still the best thing in Grandage's beautifully spoken production which goes like the clappers on a wonderfully empty space backed by vast pillars and pierced with shafts of light. A towering achievement all around. (Thanks, Jane)


Variety, 25 March - 31 March 2002
by Matt Wolf

Shakespeare's envenomed Richard strips himself naked --- emotionally speaking --- in the opening soliloquy of "Richard III," so why shouldn't Kenneth Branagh's remarkable "foul toad" first appear before us attired only in underwear, Richard's misshapen body literally stretched out on what seems to be some kind of rack? The opening of Michael Grandage's new production of this often produced yet rarely satisfying play makes the audience sit up, and it's to the credit of a creative team firing on all cylinders that the interpretive excitement rarely abates. We all know that Shakespearean drama's most renowned "hedgehog" (in the final scene, Branagh is even dressed as one, albeit in Liberace-style flaming red) can be funny and fierce, but I've never before clocked a Richard so consumed by pain. "There is no creature loves me," he cries, determined as a result to engender hate. And as Branagh speaks the line, his delivery totally lacking in self-pity, the play takes on a newfound sting, as befits a ruler who has spent a life on the rack, psychically speaking, well before Grandage's fearless imagination places him there.

"Richard III" was more or less sold out prior to its press night at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, south Yorkshire, the same venue where Grandage --- the theater's associate director in charge of programming --- lured Joseph Fiennes to play Marlowe's Edward II this time last year. And while it could be argued that bagging Branagh for his first stage role since starring as a decidedly dry Royal Shakespeare Co. Hamlet a decade ago marks an arguably greater coup, no casting gambit really matters if you don't deliver the goods. Branagh et al. succeed not so much by reinventing the play --- the production is far less radical, for instance, than the Richard Eyre-Ian McKellen version that subsequently fueled McKellen's filmed "Richard III" --- but by investigating it truthfully from scratch. The result: a character famed for possessing an arm like a "blasted sapling" is seen to have a soul like one, too. Suffice it to say that as a "foul defacer of God's handiwork," Richard acts from experience as a man whom God long ago defaced.

It was pretty much a given that Branagh could handle the verse. The play's actorish comedy emerges easily and sometimes with bruising force --- the quick dismissal of Richard's "He cannot live" to an early victim: No crisis of conscience there! --- while his admission to himself that "Sin will pluck on sin" suggests the actor as a potentially mighty Macbeth. More surprising are the currents of feeling, coupled with an unusual degree of bodily self-disgust, that exert a perverse fascination beyond even Antony Sher's celebrated crutch-wielding perf of the same role in 1984. Stripped of the garments that camouflage his disfigurement, this Richard isn't the hunchback of legend but a pasty figure, at once stooped and sad, with a putty-like physique that demands of Branagh a series of punishing contortions in order to bring home the severity of Richard's physical estrangement from his own self.

For much of the play, Branagh walks the stage with one leg encased in a contraption, which is why it's a particular shock when he drops to the ground to crawl after Queen Margaret (the supreme Barbara Jefford) seeking repentance. Or, earlier on, hurls off him the young lords whose lives he will later cut short when they dare to roughhouse with so wretched a specimen of flesh. And though his left arm lies limply by his side, Richard's right one is at the perpetual ready for a fight, with Branagh snapping to physical life just as startlingly as he allows himself to droop --- as if the sheer price of playing the rampaging ruler were worming away at Richard from within. (Remarking "I am not in the giving vein," he hurls Buckingham to the ground with just his good arm.)

So revelatory is its central perf that one risks overlooking the able support of a distinguished cast, among whom Jefford (Ralph Fiennes' recent, and no less peerless, Volumnia) sets herself apart as a trembling termagant of the highest order. If the other women aren't in her league (Avril Elgar's Duchess of York is especially pro forma), the men are excellent down the line. Danny Webb's Buckingham makes an unusually moving cohort-turned-victim, his realization that All Soul's Day is also his own doomsday coming too late to help. Among an ensemble made up to some degree of longtime Branagh colleagues, Gerard Horan (Clarence) and Jimmy Yuill (Hastings) remind us that what can sometimes seem like thespian clubbishness has a basis in reason: Both men are very good.

Still, it's hard to imagine attention placed anywhere else once Branagh stalks Christopher Oram's sparely appointed stage, lit with its own distinctive bite by Tim Mitchell to the alternately ceremonial and elegiac strains of Julian Philips' original score. This play is popular in the same way that villainy (especially in the theater) so often is: Richard III is the malformed miscreant you love to hate. How often, though, is a character's external capacity for the horrific achieved without sacrificing a sense of the pain that begins within? Let's hope it isn't another 10 years before this actor --- here playing a character "made blind with weeping" --- leaves a Shakespearean perennial looking blindingly new.
(Thanks, ctighe)

Branagh Makes Powerful Return
Branagh's range and limbs are stretched in a superb Richard III that is worth seeing for one performance alone - and it's not even his...

The Stage , 28 March 2002
by John Highfield

The much hyped coming together of Kenneth Branagh and Crucible associate director Michael Grandage is as exciting as the theatre and its audiences – who helped make this the venue's biggest selling show in 30 years – could have hoped.

He may have been away from the stage for the past decade but from the minute Branagh opens the evening, it is clear that he has lost none of his power.

We see him first as a helpless, naked cripple, falling to the stage and unable to do much more than sprawl where he lies. But in a remarkable piece of physical theatre, he transforms into the man who will shape the fate of a nation - the ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

It is the whole key to this production, for Branagh's Richard is quite clearly a man driven by his deformity. He is a man who, in the brutal world of mediaeval politics, would be cast to the sidelines of the Plantagenet dynasty because of the human frailty which is constantly thrown back at him – even at the height of his power.

Yet he swallows the insults and uses them as fuel in his mission against the people he hates, thriving on his ability to distort the truth, manipulate the facts and persuade people to his point of view. He dominates the stage but never swamps the drama for director Grandage has a firm hold on a production that is filled with trademark touches.

Brisk and assured, the drama gains momentum thanks to Grandage's insistence that the story always move swiftly along. Christopher Oram's designs and Tim Mitchell's excellent lighting are an enormous help here. In support there is the kind of cast that ensures every character springs to life and that every aspect of a complex story is fully explored.

Particularly impressive are the women – Phyllis Logan, Avril Elgar and Claire Price as three of the queens whole lives are tainted by Richard's poison. And towering above the whole production is Barbara Jefford's brilliant, haunting Margaret – A thilling lesson for both cast and audience in how Shakespeare really should be spoken and played.

It may be Branagh's evening but when Jefford is on stage, all eyes are surely on her.
(Thanks, Bertilla)

Branagh is Bracing; Law a Bore
2 British actors return to the stage as Richard III, Dr. Faustus

AP , 1 April 2002
by Matt Wolf

SHEFFIELD, England, April 1 — Two British actors have returned to the stage with different results. Kenneth Branagh is playing to sold-out audiences at the Crucible Theatre, giving one of the most bracing performances of his career in “Richard III.” But Jude Law's appearance at London's Young Vic as the title character in Christopher Marlowe's “Dr. Faustus” is just plain boring.

That first speech tips us off to the malformed wretch that Richard feels himself to be, well before he begins exerting the venomous charm that will carry him to the throne.

From the very outset, Branagh's Richard captures a startled audience. The actor delivers Richard's celebrated opening soliloquy clad only in underpants, his body strapped into a contraption that looks like a cross between a medieval rack and some frighteningly chic bed frame.

The impact is twofold. It presents Richard almost literally laid bare as he is laying himself bare to the audience. That first speech tips us off to the malformed wretch that Richard feels himself to be, well before he begins exerting the venomous charm that will ultimately carry him through to the throne. Physically, you get the disturbing sense that Richard is trying to have himself stretched, as if a machine could put right the misshapen body that has contributed to poisoning his spirit. In front of the various women whom Richard woos, he stands stiff-backed and upright. Elsewhere, alone and unclothed, he's a pitiful, pasty-faced figure with a bum leg and a limp and useless arm that, at one point, finds him crawling abjectly across the stage.

As directed by Michael Grandage, Branagh's Richard is funny, chilling and poignant all at once. The first two qualities are common enough in a play about so enjoyably vile a central figure. For all Richard's murderous intent as he climbs to the throne, he is a malevolently funny showman whose asides to the audience win comic respect. But Branagh goes well beyond this evil jokester; he presents a Richard wrestling with endless pain. Nor is the performance just about physical trappings; Richard's ravaged soul remains as visible as his sad, stooped body.

Branagh, who started in theater, has returned to the stage after a 10-year absence during which he pursued a film career as an actor and director. His re-emergence is a revelation.

Less successful is Law's return to the stage after a two-year absence. Law is starring in a Young Vic Theatre Company production of Marlowe's infrequently staged play.

Bore of a Performanc
The play traces its own deathly arc in which the scholarly Faustus sells his soul to the devil and faces a life of damnation. Law works hard to diminishing effect, and his performance turns out to be a bore.

The low comic interludes — such as the arrival of the Seven Deadly Sins — in director David Lan's production make for unfunny viewing. And where Branagh's supporting cast mostly shines (Barbara Jefford is especially good as a vengeful Queen Margaret), the six actors who appear with Law are tiresome.

You have to admire the stamina of a performer who has chosen a leap into the deep end of the dramatic repertoire. As it happens, Law was educated at the same south London school as the first-ever Faustus — Edward Alleyn, back in 1589. But despite a charismatic star's valiant efforts, the play just sits there. It runs through May 4.

Do We Like Him Now?

Times Literary Supplement , 5 April 2002
by Stephen Brown

RICHARD III. By Shakespeare. Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Kenneth Branagh's Richard III - a villain for the era of smile politics

Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible is built around Kenneth Branagh. There are few "concepts" and the only major one, as we shall see, relates to Branagh's characterization. The costumes are non-specific medieval-modern hybrid, tunics and greatcoats with the young princes in trainers. The set, by Christopher Oram, a bare, grey stone floor on the thrust stage with a backdrop of pillars, is similarly generic and unobtrusive. The characters move swiftly across the open playing space, scenes almost overlapping. Tim Mitchell's grand schematic lighting, with banks of spotlights carving up the stage, does most of the work of differentiating spaces and keeps the action moving. The company are variable, though Danny Webb makes a fine, weaselly Buckingham, and Barbara Jefford delivers Queen Margaret's vengeful curses with real stature. Branagh, in his first proper stage appearance since his acclaimed 1992 Hamlet for Richard Eyre, is not a selfish actor; but there is never any doubt of where the focus lies.

Everything depends on him.
The play opens with Richard crucified. Branagh, wearing only underpants, is wheeled on, strapped into a steel frame, his arms outstretched, his head held by bolts in a vicious metal ring -his crown of thorns. He begins his soliloquy, reciting emptily, lying almost horizontal. Then, as he reveals his true intentions, he is tipped forward onto the stage. Without the frame to straighten his body, Richard hunches forward crouched on the cold grey floor. His withered left arm hangs useless, his right leg is jammed out in front of him and he must struggle alone into his clothes. But the hermit crab is just moving from shell to shell. His clothes will train him again, with callipers down one trouser leg and a tightly strapped casing around his torso. Once dressed, he appears almost without disability, moves about the stage with great speed and only a slight limp, his useless arm tucked neatly into his tunic. He is handsome (we can imagine him courting an "amorous looking-glass") and he may be "curtailed of this fair proportion", but only privately so.

This startling opening image, performed with such force that it makes you wince, gives the play a defining motif and a ballast of repressed pain in what is a very comic production.

Branagh is following on from his smiling, chuckling Iago in Oliver Parker's 1995 film of Othello and his brisk Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution, in the recent television drama, Conspiracy - performances which begin to answer the question, how does an actor, known for his mild good looks, physical grace and decency, play evil? The answer is a performance of surfaces.

The most important is the one he shows to us, full of bonhomie and confidence, which plays on his image as an actor. Even as he emerges from the frame ("But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks / . . ."), his tone is conversational and frank (this is a man, after all, quite exposed to us), save for a savage bellow on the last word of "And descant on mine own deformity". He strolls along the perimeter of the Crucible's big thrust stage, working the audience, asking us "What?", daring us to censure him. This knowing irony runs through almost every moment, at least until Richard begins to lose control of events in the second half of the play. It is an immediately attractive stance, friendly even, based on the certainty of, rather than a demand for, our involvement.

To the other characters on stage, he is the consummate actor, switching styles from moment to moment: jovial, sharp, wheedling, forceful and mocking. In the first wooing scene (Act One, Scene Two), he actually straddles Anne on the ground, forcing her to kiss him. Instructing the two murderers to kill Clarence, he suddenly hits them for no reason. His delivery of Shakespeare's verse is, as ever, dazzlingly fluent, fresh and irreverent. When Derby says that Richmond is on his way to claim the crown, Richard's dry riposte, "Is the chair empty?", delivered very slowly, as if to an idiot child, gets a big laugh. His note of wounded sincerity (in Act One, Scene Three and elsewhere) and his protestations of unwillingness to be king (in Act Three, Scene Seven) are often hilarious. There is more than a touch of pantomime. After he has appeared before the citizenry with his two fake bishops, he chucks the bible to one of them. Before the interval, he turns back to look at the audience and enjoy one last smirk of complicity. This Richard III has been the fastest-selling show in the Crucible's thirty-year history, mostly, one imagines, on the back of Branagh's popularity. "Do you like me now?" he seems to be asking.

Part of the reason why this is a very good production, rather than a great one, is that our answer may be, a little too easily, "Yes". Since 1945, Richard III has lived under two shadows: the defining memory of Laurence Olivier's production of that year, later made into his 1955 film, and the sense that, after Hitler et al, Shakespeare's ironical tragedy had become a great deal blacker and more contemporary. Yet here in Sheffield, the play seems to have regained a great deal of its lightness. Morally and emotionally, Richard's crimes do not register so strongly. There is nothing of the political and historical specificity of, for example, Richard Eyre's 1991 production, with Ian McKellen as Richard, set in a nightmarish alternative history of the fascist aristocracy - Oswald Mosley, Diana and Unity Mitford, even Edward VIII -that Britain never quite had. There is no suggestion of the symbolic force of Richard's killings (as in Sam Mendes's 1992 production with Simon Russell Beale), and no attempt to bring more of them on stage. Richard's victims are not particularly sympathetic either: the court is presented as a place of rivalries and Realpolitik, and even the two princes are brats who, albeit by accident, inflict terrible pain on Richard. Infanticide doesn't seem so bad. Part of the problem is that, because Branagh's performance so dominates and energizes the whole production, his victims seem quite diminished. Too much of the horror gets lost in the vaudevillean tone.

So, how evil is Branagh's Richard? He has moments of genuinely frightening violence and his sangfroid is itself chilling. But he doesn't have the touch of the demonic that you get from Olivier or McKellen or Al Pacino in his 1996 movie Looking for Richard. One hesitates to say that Branagh needs to show us more. His excellence as a television and film actor is based on his ability, not universal among theatre actors, to do almost nothing. Evil is, after all, the name we give to a kind of silence, a gap in motive - as Shakespeare himself recognized in the figures of Iago and Aaron. Both of those characters, like Richard, can trace their ancestry well outside ordinary psychological motivation to the symbolic figures of Vice and Machiavell. It may also be the case that, like Steven Pimlott's RSC Hamlet (2001) and the Almeida's recent King Lear, Branagh's Richard is an attempt to think through Shakespeare's dynastic politics for an age of spin and appearances - smile politics.

Yet there is still something lacking. Metaphorically speaking, Richard's deformity is too well braced; it is difficult to understand how a character with such stores of ease can also be so driven or full of self-hatred. The different levels of Branagh's performance need to seep more into each other. The very suddenness of his transitions (in all their virtuosity) suggests a characterization that, deep down, does not fully cohere.

Branagh does begin to develop this kind of complexity. As already mentioned, after Richard greets the two princes, there is a deeply uncomfortable sequence in which they knock him to the ground and play over him, pulling off his brace and clambering onto his back. In McKellen's film Richard, something similar happens, but there it is played for fear - of Richard's fury. Branagh's roar of pain is pitiable as well as frightening, and the whole episode illuminates, like a flash of lightning, a history of degradation and anger. As many productions have emphasized, almost as soon as Richard has got the crown, things start to go wrong for him. He sprawls uncomfortably on the throne, his rigid leg thrust out in front of him. A note of fear creeps more often into Branagh's performance and his personae begin to blur.

The second wooing scene (Act Four, Scene Four), when he must try to persuade Queen Elizabeth that he should marry her daughter, having killed her two sons, is particularly powerful. What begins as another piece of bravura sparring from Richard builds to a terrible crescendo as Elizabeth eliminates, one by one, the things by which Richard may swear - himself, the world, his father's death, God - until Richard, by now sprawled on the floor, cries that he will swear by "The time to come". He means the future of the kingdom (the end that justifies the means), but the agony of Branagh's delivery suggests a much deeper need to believe in the future, a need related to his own private project to remake his body and escape his birth, "Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up". Like a shark, Richard must always be moving forward, away from what he is and what he has done. When she gives in and leaves, Richard's typically dismissive volte face from sincerity to "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman" is funny, but no longer entirely convincing. He has revealed too much of himself. Later, when he wakes from his terrible nightmare before the battle of Bosworth Field, he collapses onto the floor like a pinched Caliban, his face twisted in fear and pain.

The final scenes of Richmond's invasion and the battle of Bosworth Field contain, surprisingly for Michael Grandage, a few lapses of directorial judgment. The ghosts of Richard's victims, gathering around his sleeping frame and then spinning it as he sleeps, look silly rather than frightening. The battle scenes, too, are a little under-powered. Richard's battle armour, a flayed torso of raw red musculature and an exposed spinal column, is an uneasy, isolated element of symbolic costume. Perhaps Grandage is struggling to fit Branagh's complicated, highly individual Richard into a larger structure.

What is most striking is how the production deepens the character through pathos and a sense of the wounded animal within. Suffering is its strongest note. Branagh's characterization is not crassly psychological - there is no sense of a nice, vulnerable Richard on the inside - but it has a modern understanding of trauma and interiority. Richard's death -encircled, outnumbered and then speared viciously - is pitiable; he has made the journey from one form of highly symbolic death (crucifixion) to another. If Branagh has still not quite escaped his own likeability, he has given us a remarkable, intelligent Richard. If he could find more of the Antichrist in his crucified King, it would be a great one.

Branagh Mesmerises as Crookback

Shakespeare at the Centre, May 2002
by Dr. Catherine Alexander

I had the pleasure of giving the pre-performance lecture to the Friends before their trip to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to see Richard III and focused first on the different visions of kingship and government offered in the opening and closing speeches of the play. The first speech, delivered by Richard, suggests that the characteristics of a York victory are frivolous and trivial: 'merry meetings', 'delightful measures' and 'the lascivious pleasing of a lute'. The closing speech, delivered by the victorious Richmond, soon to become Henry VII, offers a serious and very different vision of a Tudor victory that stresses civil and domestic peace.

Shakespeare employs a unique high-risk strategy in the play's opening speech relying completely on the strengths of the lead actor, 'solus'. There is no gentle way into the drama through chorus or dialogue but a demanding 41 line soliloquy. Antony Sher has written of the terror of the first soliloquy and the impossibility of blocking out the sound of Olivier in the role. Other productions have dodged the dangerous isolation of the moment by peopling the set and giving Richard an on-stage audience or, particularly in film versions of the play, providing a pre-history that gives context to the 'winter of...discontent...made glorious summer.'

The speech is certainly amenable to a range of presentations as it shifts from the plural, public nature of the opening lines ('our discontent', 'our bruised arms', 'our stern alarums' and so forth) to the personal 'I' voice, 'determined to prove a villain.' The potential was exploited most ostentatiously in Ian McKellen's film adaptation with a shift from the public, amplified announcement to the private moment at the urinal and the mirror, concluding the speech direct to camera when he clearly shared his evil intentions in a moment of collusion with the audience.

Michael Grandage's production at Sheffield narrowed the possibilities of the speech by confining Richard, Kenneth Branagh, to a caged orthopedic bed in which he was strapped to straighten his spine and limbs. Thus constrained he had to rely on voice alone, adding a bitter note to the physicality of the lines, and even when released from the harness he remained confined to the floor until trussing himself into clothes that straightened and supported his left leg and right arm. Branagh's representation of disability was one of the most mesmerizing aspects of his performance. He visibly shrank without support - the curvature of spine increased and the limbs withered - and while he never exploited this deformity to seek sympathy it offered palpable motivation for his malevolence. His physical malformation was kept to the forefront of this production: the bed became a torture chamber in which he was racked by visions on the night before Bosworth and for the battle itself he wore a doublet with an exaggerated back seam that resembled gross hooked vertebrae and whose padded red cloth looked like flayed flesh and muscle. One of the most remarkable features of Shakespeare's play is the way in which he is able to hold the audience's attention when it knows - from Richard's opening speech or from a knowledge of English history and myth - what is going to happen. The speed of events is undoubtedly a contributing factor and the pace of Grandage's production at Sheffield was one of its great strengths. This was partly achieved through some judicious cutting that halved the number of speaking roles and reduced Shakespeare's second longest play to a manageable three hours but was mainly effected through the simplicity of the staging that allowed for continuous flow of action with the minimum of stage furniture - rostra and throne - and through particularly successful lighting. Richard's mood changes are compelling too and Branagh was particularly good at exploiting the humour of Richard's manipulative skill. Some critics have suggested that Peter Mandelson was the role model for Richard's 'spinning' but one line delivery, with a break after 'you know' and an appropriate gesture, was pure Blair. From Colley Cibber's 1699 adaptation onwards productions of Richard III have often been devised to highlight the skills of a single actor. Through cutting and the insertion of additional speeches Cibber gave himself 40% of the total dialogue of the play and although he failed in the title role (Aaron Hill compared his performance to 'the distorted Garrick's highly acclaimed London Shakespeare debut in 1741'), Cibber even receives a text credit at the start of what is still probably the best-known version of the play and the best-known Richard: Olivier's 1955 film. The size and range of the role makes the star vehicle approach difficult to resist - the physical demands, the humour, melodrama, cruelty, tragic potential - but the pleasure of the Sheffield production was to see the play delivered as an ensemble piece. Kenneth Branagh, always a generous actor, shared the stage with some fine performers and the women, particularly Phyllis Logan's Queeen Elizabeth, Barbara Jefford's Queen Margaret and Avril Elgar's Duchess of York, were excellent foils who resisted the screech and rant that frequently characterizes their roles. It was rare too to have such audible and competent child actors who created a Prince Edward and a Duke of York who clearly offered a personal threat as well as an inheritance problem for Richard.

But what of that closing speech, Richmond's healing Tudor vision? 'God, if Thy will be so, / Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace, / With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days' was movingly delivered by Gideon Turner to provide what Shakespeare surely intended - an optimistic sense of closure.
(Thanks, Jude)


Theatre Record , Volume XXII: 2002, Issue 6
by Verena Winter

I have to start by praising a Sheffield treat: the power-boosting chameleon Kenneth Branagh as Richard III in Michael Grandage's perspicacious, bracing production. Looking round at the Crucible's first night crowd, I felt sure that I was not the only one with high expectations. My hopes were not let down - on the contrary: I found myself swimming in a pool of stimulation! Yes, Branagh is the star of this triumphant stage comeback - but he is fully part of a finely tuned, dynamic ensemble. Grandage chooses a clear, narrative pace for Shakespeare's verse that is lifted to sheer perfection by Branagh. The beginning alone, with Richard's first monologue, is breathtaking: There he lies, on a wooden, slightly sloping board, encaged by a construction of metal poles and wires; naked (except for white underpants), with arms stretched out in a Christ-like position of suffering and secured by leather loops; his legs seemingly fastened to the wood and his head surrounded by a dangerously looking iron halo with screws. Is this a torture machine in a madhouse, I asked myself? Or a vile Frankenstein contraption for building up a human being? In fact it is a stretch bed, on which the Duke of Gloucester's disabled limbs are corrected, easing off the throbbing muscle pain, though the mental distress remains, pushing him deeper and deeper into anger-fire orders to kill. Then, still cursing his deformity, Richard unstraps himself and heaves his weak body into a corset, the right leg stiffened by an armour prosthesis, his left arm hidden in a glove that is tightened to his outfit. Even more striking are Branagh's melody and rhythm, turning verse into a prose-like sound of freshness and irony, sweetness and malevolence. He switches with a flicker of a nervous eyelid from sinister clown (causing cascades of uneasy laughter among the audience) to dangerous master of charm, from dissembling humbleness to viciousness of soul, his vulnerability emphasized by the red jacket hew wears before going into battle: an anatomical study of raw veined muscles with a skeleton spine sticking out at the back. Christopher Oram's design fits the atmosphere perfectly: stylised costumes in seductive deep colours with hints of Japanese details like squarely knotted waistbands; dark, slate-grey pillars creating a hall of doom, cheatingly soothed by floating gauzy curtains, sketched streets of brisk, white light or dunked in a moody colour flood (excellent Tim Mitchell).
(Thanks, Catherine)