The candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, one of London’s most enchanting spaces, is made to feel menacing in this exhilarating conclusion to Shakespeare’s Globe’s cycle of history plays.
The production begins where Henry VI left off, the walls of the Playhouse covered with graffiti-strewn chipboard, and a murky circle of dirt on the floor.
Sophie Russell’s glinting, wicked Richard really comes into her own in this production, as she morphs from a cool-blooded killer in a grubby white T-shirt who relishes mayhem and cheerily dispatches her enemies with a chainsaw to a sociopath in a pristine white suit, who has others murdered on her behalf.
There’s no attempt to play the character as “crooked” or “misshapen” in any physical sense; Richard’s ‘wrongness’, his monstrosity, is more deep-rooted.
Every time someone is killed at Richard’s behest, she comes on and sings a song, crooning like Elvis or indulging in a spot of salsa. Though it feels like a slightly superficial take at times, Russell is a charismatic and winningly lip-licking Richard with a liking for biting more than just the world.
Both this and Henry VI feel like tauter, more joined-up productions than the main-stage shows featuring the same ensemble cast, the benefits of Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s direction evident.
I’d also put money on them having recently binge-watched Dexter or Hannibal, probably both. Be-crimsoned body parts in plastic bags feature prominently and, by the second half, the Playhouse stage has been covered in plastic sheeting, to better aid the post-kill clean-up process. Richard’s victims are viciously dispatched with scissors or smothered in pits of earth. Impending murder is heralded by the setting up of a floodlight, so the victims knows what’s coming to them.
The members of the ensemble all get opportunities to shine. Steffan Donnelly’s Margaret returns, ravaged and undone, mascara streaked across his face. Jonathan Broadbent plays a deceptively amiable Buckingham in sock-suspenders. The idea that Richard is hot for him is an interesting one, but this attraction is played for laughs in a way that’s frustrating.
Sarah Amankwah is underused as an ailing Edward, though is still somehow magnetic even when doing very little. Matti Houghton makes a grounded Anne.
The production contains some genuinely unsettling moments – not least the way the vengeful dead stalk Richard’s dreams, blood leaking from their eyes, before continuing to haunt him after he wakes – but at times it veers close to a gruesome cartoon, revelling in the bloodshed a little too much, to the detriment of complexity of character.
Some of the elements are jarring and not everything the production tries works. But its energy and verve are considerable, and the show makes a potent closer for the Globe’s history cycle.