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Richard III is not a play that waves the flag for feminism. From the play’s opening soliloquy, the titular monarch makes clear his disdain for womankind. Richard, lame and deformed, is
not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I… am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph.
Women, it is implied, do not belong in the male world of war and peace, with its “barbèd steeds” and “stern alarums”; theirs is a world of lascivious lutes and “sportive tricks”. This ethos also unwittingly speaks to the play itself. Hovering in the sidelines of the narrative, the female characters fulfil the roles of weeping widows, gullible victims and powerless pawns in a story of one man’s ruthless rise to sovereignty. Defined mostly by their relationships with the men, these women are politically impotent; defenceless bystanders amid an unfurling catalogue of horrors who can do little except curse the injustices inflicted upon them.
It is with wry pleasure, therefore, that the Scrawny Cat Theatre Company tackle the play with an all-female cast. This is not the first time an all-female cast has taken the helm of Richard III. Barry Kyle staged a notable version at the Globe in 2003 followed by an all-female The Taming of the Shrew which he co-directed with Phyllida Lloyd. It is a concept that certainly seems to be gaining popularity; the 2012/2013 female-only version of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, again directed by Lloyd, was particularly acclaimed. There aren’t enough substantial roles for female performers, especially when it concerns the classics and mature female actors, and an all-female cast is an ingenious remedy. A woman can approach these parts from a refreshingly original angle, teasing out surprising nuances of character which might be overlooked in a more conventionally production. How would a female Richard III interpret the speech in which the protagonist blames his sister-in-law, Lady Grey, for landing in him in prison: “This it is when men are ruled by women”? In any case, if a performance is good, then the issue of gender shouldn’t really be noticeable at all.
The four actresses in Scrawny Cat Theatre’s production tackle the play with gusto, swapping seamlessly between characters, and each having a crack at the central role of Richard. Charley Willow does this especially well, nailing the cold, calculating nature of the scheming tyrant and exuding an unctuous menace as he manipulates the recently-widowed Anne, sympathetically played by Marie Rabe. Anne is a problematic role for an actor, given how quickly she shifts from upbraiding the devil Richard for murdering her husband and father to giving in to his serpentine logic – but Rabe brings out her vulnerability and essential self-doubt.
Director Charlotte Ive skilfully condenses the play into ninety minutes of pacey drama. The staging is tight with minimal set and props and the slick use of simple costumes. Less successful, however, are the puppets. Although a cleverly designed piece, the Richard puppet feels unnecessary when we already have four actresses amply portraying the Machiavellian’s multifaceted personality. The use of silk cloths fashioned as hand puppets to portray the two young princes teamed with the comedy “child” voices of the actresses working them, also miss their mark. The imprisonment and eventual murder of the young princes is one of the most poignant threads of the entire play this flimsy depiction of them rather undermined the tragedy.
We can, however, almost forgive these flaws thanks to the extraordinary setting of this production. As Emma Whipday recently wrote in Litro, the Rose, Bankside’s first Elizabethan Theatre built in 1587, was only re-discovered in 1989 and the archaeological foundations provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to the action, especially effective with the recent excavation of Richard III’s (supposed) remains from a Leicester car park still fresh in our minds. It is cold, damp and cavernous, and as a spectator, it was almost akin to watching the drama unfold from a draughty chamber in the Tower itself and being another one of Richard’s wronged prisoners.
Elizabeth Graham’s sublime music and sound design work exceptionally well in this space. The simple drums and vocal harmonies ricochet eerily around the ruins and the echoed whispers of Richard’s dead victims, ascending from the depths during the final battle scene are chilling. For all its shortcomings, Scrawny Cat Theatre Company delivers an imaginative re-working of Richard III, admirable in its ambitions, and greatly enhanced by the unique setting of the Rose Theatre. Richard was wrong: the female cast were equally at home on the battlefield as in the bedchamber. Why, this it is when the King is played by women.
Richard III finishes on April 26th at the Rose Theatre, Bankside. See the Scrawny Cat website for more information.