Tom Mothersdale had a particularly purple 2018. He was wheedling and American in Annie Baker’s John at London’s National Theatre, wolfishly sinister in Robert Alan Evans’ The Woods at the Royal Court, and hilariously oafish in Martin Crimp’s Dealing With Clair at the Orange Tree.
He starts 2019 in a similarly stellar vein, supplying a memorable Richard III in John Haidar’s touring production for Headlong, opening at Bristol Old Vic before it heads to Alexandra Palace later this month.
It’s a frighteningly physical performance from Mothersdale. With his left leg trussed up and splayed out, and his right shoulder hunched, he lurches and gambols around the stage, grimacing and gurning throughout. There’s more than a hint of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the way he feverishly licks his lips and fretfully tucks his greasy locks behind his ear.
It would perhaps be nice to see more of his playful side – he’s a naturally impish actor, and Richard III is the perfect part for him – but it feels churlish to ask improvement of a performance that’s already great.
He’s almost never off stage, barking orders at Stefan Adegbola’s dapper Buckingham, sweatily seducing Leila Mimmack’s grieving Anne, or – the staging’s finest moments – contorting like a spider under a hot magnifying glass and his mother’s ice-cold gaze. There, in an instant, is the entire explanation for all the destruction he wreaks, all the blood he spills.
And, in Haidar’s quicksilver production, there’s a healthy amount of bloodbags to be burst. Richard’s merciless murders are stylishly staged – sudden acts of violence, committed to a flash of red light and a blare of white noise. Chiara Stephenson’s set – a multi-level, semicircle of rotating mirrors – reflects the deaths ten times over.
We even get a bit more violence than usual, thanks to Haidar’s reworking of the text: the production starts with the conclusion of Henry VI Part III – we see Richard stab his royal cousin to death before the winter of discontent descends. It’s a neat contextualisation, that echoes throughout the play as John Sackville’s ghostly Henry returns to usher Richard’s ensuing victims into the afterlife.
It’s difficult to take your eyes of Mothersdale, but there’s strong performances on offer when you do. Adegbola is a smarmy Buckingham, forever pulling at his cuffs, and Derbhle Crotty is an imperiously Scottish Elizabeth. A special mention too, for Heledd Gwynn who makes for a striking Ratcliffe, androgynous and trench-coated as she coldly carries out Richard’s bidding.
Come the conclusion, though, and Haidar’s breathlessly staged Bosworth – ticking clock, insistent electronic score – it’s all about Mothersdale, crawling on the floor, caked in filth and frantically flinging mud at his laughing enemies, desperately clutching for the crown. A superb performance, from a star in the making.