There is realism at the heart of Rutter’s production. Northern voices find the natural comedy amidst Shakespeare’s text, removing any notion of unreachable erudition. Far from desperately redefining the genre, this tragedy embraces comic elements in its approachable style.
Largely focused on the script itself, this production asks relatively little from design elements. A deep stage is backed by looming, stone-look, sliding doors, and a bare floor thrusts the action towards the audience. Having said that, sharp modern costumes are used to differentiate, especially between actors multi-roling. Innovative use is made of accessories, to replace the otherwise bloody stagecraft of the ever-mounting body count. Thus, subtle allusions allow for poetic story telling, without overplaying the tale.
From the opening soliloquy, it is clear that this is production is defined by its unbiased approach. Mat Fraser takes to the stage in casual attire and simply begins to chat to us as an audience. I’m not sure whether it was his northern accent or simply his laid back charm, but this Richard is presented very honestly—he is real. It is worth noting the intense level of realism provided to the piece by Mat’s own, real-life deformity. Far from shying away or leaving it unmentioned, the actor allows his disability to increase the shock factor, without overshadowing his performance.
Mat certainly grows into his role as the piece progresses: from attempting to woo Lady Anne in a relatively matter of fact way, to the passionate scene wherein he seduces Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand. Alongside Ruth Alexander-Rubin, as Elizabeth, this scene needs little by way of action or design, as the actors deliver their back-and-forth verbal blows with all the appropriate sickening hatred. These two give truly standout performances amidst a large cast.
This is distinctly a play of two halves—stylistically, the production seems slightly uncertain. For half of the cast, the text is left to speak for itself, as they adhere to a strict, gesture-less classical performance style. For some, their characters have been amplified to caricatured proportions. Whilst Flo Wilson’s presentation of Margaret as a crazed witch doctor is well-performed, it is hard to believe that this woman was the former Queen of England; she doesn’t quite fit. With Deano Whatton and Jim English as both the murderers and the young princes, they work in tandem as the play’s comedy double act–entertaining for sure, but at odds with some of the other cast members’ pared-back performances. Each individual performance is meritorious in its own right, but the overall combination can be a little jarring.
This imbalance is yet further clarified by the interval break. The fast-paced and dialogue-heavy first act, performed on a largely bare stage, gives way to a latter half set apart by its theatrical, visual and percussive innovations. Yet, unlike the overlapping performance styles, a sense of crescendo is well achieved by this shift into more potent theatricality.
Throughout the second half, far off drums signal impending action and cover the scene changes in a way that the first half silently lacks. The culmination of the show comes in the spectacular battle scene at Bosworth Field. The set sinks away, letting in billowing smoke and gusts of cold air as the stage floods with the entire cast and additional supernumeraries. In true Northern Broadsides’ style, the story is told musically from here on out. The drumming is impeccably coordinated and emotionally rousing. Mat Fraser’s spotlit solos deliver a level of intensity to the role that outweighs the relaxed northern charm delivered in his speeches. And the simple touch of removing army fatigues, to alter the entire visual palate, while singing acapella, perfectly closes the show, where the weakly delivered lines from Richmond would otherwise have been anti-climactic. For me, it is the flair and excitement of the second half that outshines the first and I only wish the whole piece had committed to more of these personalised directorial elements.
Mastering clear story-telling, carefully selected theatricality and championing Shakespeare’s crafted speech, Barrie Rutter’s production is an enjoyable amalgamation of new and old. Perfectly apt to celebrate 25 years of Northern Broadsides.