Ian McKellen’s fascist dictator, Antony Sher’s bottled spider, Jonjo O’Neill in biker leathers – they rank among the most memorable recent incarnations of Shakespeare’s villainous King Richard III in the final Plantagenet history play.
In DruidShakespeare’s handsome production Aaron Monaghan plays him as “hell’s black intelligencer”, dissembling, deceitful, persuasive. Ever the supreme performer, Monaghan’s Richard grabs immediate attention, oozing easy wit and a swaggering demeanour before revealing the twisted body which contains them.
Tightly clad in inky black, his back sprinkled with sparkling scales, he scuttles around the political arena like a predatory cockroach, at once physically repellent and sexually intriguing. As the crown comes within his grasp, the body count rises, with many lives dispatched by Marty Rea’s sinister, Belfast accented, bowler hatted executioner Catesby. But with power comes paranoia.
After the interval, the wise cracks wither as the weight of monarchy and the relentless approach of Henry Tudor’s army drag the creature’s centre of gravity ever lower.
It is a remarkable portrayal, complemented by those of four royal women whose lives are forever tainted by him: Jane Brennan’s elegant Queen Elizabeth, Marie Mullen’s banshee-like Queen Margaret, Siobhan Cullen’s hapless Lady Anne and Ingrid Craigie’s grieving Duchess of York, who gave birth to this “damned son”.
Francis O’Connor’s vast, echoing set, with its dirt floor, metal walls and heavy doors, evokes court, battleground and slaughterhouse. Director Garry Hynes attacks the dramatic potential of those turbulent times at full throttle, employing muscular Irish inflection to inject revelatory clarity and crackling humour into a quintessentially English historical context.