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Richard III review at Hull Truck Theatre – ‘invigorating and exciting’

Ruth Alexander-Rubin, Mat Fraser and Catherine Kinsella in Richard III. Photo: Nobby Clark

This is both a homecoming and a reclamation. Twenty-five years ago Northern Broadsides made its debut in Hull with a production of Richard III starring Barrie Rutter with Shakespeare played in northern accents, something that has become the company’s hallmark.

Now it returns as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations with a production directed by Rutter that simultaneously attempts to revisit that earlier staging while taking the intriguing and exciting step of casting actor and broadcaster Mat Fraser as the maleficent monarch.

He’s said to be the first disabled actor to play the role – something that feels a long time coming, if true – but while, on one level, this wakes the play up, it’s also an oddly stiff and old-fashioned piece of theatre that struggles to bridge the years.

Rutter’s production is, for the most part, a spare one. There’s a lot of front-facing acting, scenes of people speaking at each other rather than to each other, and much purposeful striding around. It all feels a bit stuffy.

Fraser is a charismatic presence; he’s good at lip-licking villainy and barely contained fury. There are no humps or straps or prostheses here. Fraser’s Richard uses the shock of his body as a weapon and wraps himself ominously around Lady Anne. But some of his verse delivery is textureless, and there’s not a lot in the way of nuance, nor vulnerability, nor – crucially and unexpectedly – menace. The performances are all fairly broad, including Rutter returning here as Edward. Clarence’s murderers and the young Princes are doubled by Dean Whatton and Jim English, which makes for some nice comic moments but no real sense of tragedy.

Neil Murray’s marbled black tile set, with its siding panels, looks like the bathroom of a swanky hotel. The costumes consist of sharp suits or ermine, with colourful scarves that are hung up like scalps to mark the demise of Richard’s victims. There’s no music at all, which makes the battle scenes all the more striking. The back wall of the theatre opens up, and the stage fills with smoke and the rumble of drums.

It’s invigorating and exciting in a way that’s previously been lacking, and makes you ache for the production this might have been. In its last scenes, this Richard roars and thunders but it comes too late. It would have been nice to see Fraser allowed to let rip a little more.

With the work of Ramps on the Moon expanding and exploring the way performers with disabilities are cast, it feels like the time is ripe for theatre to be less timid in treatment of disability on stage. Imaginative casting opens up the plays in new ways. It throws fresh light on them. Now I’d be interested in seeing a disabled actor tackling Macbeth, say, or Stanley Kowalski, or Hester Collyer.

Mat Fraser: All theatres should cast at least one disabled actor a year

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Verdict
Northern Broadsides’ anniversary production only comes to life in its later scenes
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