Richard III at Alexandra Palace Theatre
PUBLISHED: 10:47 27 February 2019
Headlong theatre company's reimagined versio of Shakespeare's history play will try to excavate the vulnerability of the king beneath the council car park
Long before his body was discovered under a council car park, Richard III was a divisive figure.
The Richard III Society, which part financed the dig, was set up in 1924 to “secure a more balanced assessment” of a king who has been vilified as a manupulative murdering tyrant.
John Haidar, director of a production which boldly reimagines Shakespeare’s classic play, is also “trying to redress the balance” by focusing on Richard’s vulnerabilty and craving for love.
Headlong, a theatre company which specialises in staging exciting new writing and reinventing classics, brings their reworked version to Alexandra Palace Theatre next month.
“I needed to love and understand him to explore who he was,” says Haidar.
“Shakespeare’s version of him is different to the historical version. We want to recover who he was as a man, and who he is on the page. There are times when they are quite different people, but there’s a lot of psychological insight within Shakespeare. Richard is deeply human, deeply flawed, deeply vulnerable and been failed by most of the people in his life.”
The body reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in 2015 showed pre and post death injuries, evidence says Haidar of a “horrible, humiliating death” following Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth.
“They stabbed and pulled his body through Leicester.”
Tom Mothersdale, who plays Richard took the trip north to“get close to his bones”.
“I found it very moving, you come to the end of the museum and see the hole where his body lay. It brings it home that he was just chucked in a ditch. Then you go over to see this coffin in the Cathedral. They gave him a beautiful send off.”
It made him even more determined to explore Richard’s humanity.
“Shakespeare didn’t write a factual play,” says Motherdale. “We’re keen on being truthful. No-one’s born violent. We want to know why he is doing these things, to excavate why he makes those decisions. Yes he’s cruel and wildly funny, but there’s also that depth of feeling.”
Haidar chips in: “He’s a product of trauma; it’s integral to his emotional context. He doesn’t have the relationship he wants with his family and is unable to find love in various forms.”
Buffeted by civil war and political instability, Richard’s father and brother were killed in battle when he was eight. Sent away by his mother for safety, he was battle hardened by 18.
“His self determination is through war and when that’s taken away from him he is left in this no man’s land when he has to continue to find an identity for himself. The only way is through violence,” says Haidar.
“It’s extraordinary to me, working on it, you can see a well of longing within him which I don’t think has been truly explored.”
Mothersdale says their version has both “taken stuff away and added stuff” but promises it all feels organic in a production set in a non-specific period.
“Each generation seems to reinvent itself through a cycle of right wing politics,” explains Haidar.
“This play responds to the politics of every time, it speaks to capitalism – the Royal family becomes a family business. After a long period of instability it’s the rebalancing of power, strong and stable government, it feels ironic to be staging it now.
“Richard is able to lie his way to a vision of the future which feels comfortable for everyone but is only comfortable for him. The onus on the people who elected him.”
Haidar hopes that reshaping the play and focusing on character will make it more accessible to those who haven’t seen Shakespeare before.
“There shouldn’t be this expectation that we need to see Shakespeare in a certain way. For me that’s the death of theatre.
“It’s a sprawling piece which is heavily invested in the dynastic politics of its own time, and if you come to it not knowing those politics it can feel alienating. Richard III is the climax of Shakespeare’s history cycle. The end of this brilliantly conceived arc about a generational conflict and a family at war for half a century. If you haven’t lived through the previous emotional and political context and just see it as a stand alone play, it needs careful handling.
“What fascinates me is to to zoom in on the emotional centre and unlock the vulnerability that exists in Richard, his relationship to his family and his past and to tell that story with clarity and feeling and love. “
Haidar is happy that it is being co-produced by Alexandra Palace Theatre, which reopened in December after an 80 year sleep. “It is a thetare full of ghosts and the history of that space,”
As for Motherdale, he’s unphased by the daunting array of famous actors who have played the role before him.
“I don’t think about it” he says.
“Richard is a king, a murderer, a politician, a lover, a son. When do you get a chance to play a character who’s everything in one?”
Headlong’s Richard III runs at Alexandra Palace Theatre from March 13-31 alexandrapalace.com