views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Crookback
Etcetera Theatre
14th July 2013

★★★★★

Tim Welham as Richard III

Photography © Michael Harrison

Last year saw one of the archaeological finds of the century - Richard III's body was uncovered in a car park in a Leicester. It proved what many dismissed to be Tudor propaganda, that is, Richard's scoliosis that had marked him out in history as a villain. That, perhaps, and the act of locking two young princes away in the Tower of London before arranging their dispatch in one way or another. Bloomin' child murder, eh? Always comes back to bite you in the backside.

In Crookback - which incidentally started life before the aforementioned discovery - creator Tim Welham and director Megan Watson have taken Shakespeare's Richard III, ripped it of its trappings and repackaged it as a character study of the man himself. Sure, with his soliloquies and manipulation of the Royals, he's always been one of the more compelling, charismatic and easily-accessible of the Bard' baddies, even if the play isn't. So wisely we get to see the conniving entirely through the eyes of our anti-hero.

The set gives you an immediate impression of this Richard - albeit one open to interpretation. Names of his adversaries are scrawled on the wall in chalk along with his ultimate goals - crowns and the throne. It's one of both a planner and a madman. This could easily be a timeline in which Richard didn't die at the battle of Bosworth field but was instead imprisoned in the Tower like the princes, with only a tape player for company, recounting his futile power struggle over and over again. Or it could be the war room of an assured general who has a single-minded aim in his sights and every liability mapped out for all to see. Indeed, they may not be mutually exclusive.

Richard III, along with Hamlet, is often seen as the pinnacle of any actor's career. It's the role to end all roles and you desperately need someone strong enough to do it justice. Welham, frankly, is a marvel. His Richard is constantly playing a game. In front of us there's a limp and a withered arm, but he mostly stands tall, statesman-like or at times casually lounging on a chair or against a wall conspiring with us in a charming and disarming way. It's when he's recounting his deeds in scenes with others that he hunches and gives us what we expect.

With the action seen through the eyes of Richard - the lust for power making him an unreliable narrator - he becomes a grotesque in his own tale to mask his competency and elicit sympathy. It's no surprise too that Richard sees all of his rivals as grotesques. Lady Anne is somewhat simpering, the Prince of Wales an annoying urchin, most royalty dismissed as ineffectual, rotund and blustering. Only co-conspirator Buckingham is portrayed in anything resembling a positive light. Welham flits between these without pause, relishing in their tics and Richard's open mockery.

This all works to greatly heighten the comedic aspects of the original. It's usually overlooked that this has a lot of laughs by creators too bloody-minded to see the bigger picture. Welham and Watson have ensured the emphasis doesn't shift too far in one direction, Richard's spiteful and knowing asides are clearly signposted and Welham's physicality and clowning bring an utterly different dimension to proceedings. That's not to dismiss the dramatic, as some of Shakespeare's best-loved speeches are delivered with an intensity and electricity that is hard to find in the West End, never mind off it.

Form meets function beautifully here to give the audience a clear artistic vision. But it's also one which knows when to play its cards to its chest to deliver just the right level of ambiguity, giving rise to personal interpretation and questions.

If there's one problem with Crookback, it's that it's over too soon. But Welham has an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in the pipeline and if he puts even an ounce of the thought, passion and ingenuity on display here into that, it's sure to be a winner too.

Crookback ran from 9th to 21st July 2013 at the Etcetera Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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