Richard III at St Paul’s Actors Church

photo-2The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton has thrust him once more into the spotlight and there are several versions of the play making the rounds. Each of them is different, but Iris Theatre’s production is something else.

Set in and around the church of St. Paul’s in Covent Garden, the audience are completely immersed in the tragic story that begins with the murder of Edward, Prince of Wales by the three sons of York.

I was a bit too close to the action and almost got a sword through my chest – luckily I side-stepped the blow… but I won’t let it affect my review.

Director Daniel Winder has chosen this opening scene (which is actually the end of Henry VI, Part III) to emphasise the events leading up to Richard’s own tragedy. The Wars of the Roses saw the deaths of princes, kings and noblemen alike, ending only when Henry Tudor’s army defeated Richard’s at the Battle of Bosworth.

Shakespeare’s Richard is a cruel man who turns brother against brother, murders his nephews and anyone else who stands in his way. David Hywel Banes is the best Richard III I’ve ever seen and the transformation astonishing (he’s actually a good looking chap). Complete with hunched back, limp and greasy hair, plus a menacing, mad look in his eye he is not only believable, but sinister and terrifying. He delivers his lines with passion and conviction and the audience hang onto his every word – it’s not an easy play to follow, but in his portrayal Shakespeare’s meaning was perfectly clear.

The cast as a whole is strong, with most of them taking on several roles, as well as singing during the scene changes. True to Shakespearean times, the two elder ladies are played by men and Mark Hawkins is particularly convincing as the witchy Queen Margaret cursing her way through the play.

For the most part the multiple roles of the cast are done well (it took me a while to realise Mark Hawkins also played Catesby) but it is still slightly confusing for anyone who doesn’t know the play; Lord Hastings (Joel Mellinger) leaves to be executed and returns seconds later as the Lord Mayor… Only to see the head of Hastings being waved around (dripping with blood).

The production is also perhaps slightly too long (almost 3 and a half hours) especially for what is essentially an outdoor performance. One does expect this with Shakespeare, but some of the scene transitions could have been slightly smoother. Obviously it’s difficult to shepherd hundreds of people to the next scene – and no theatre wants to limit an audience size – but fewer people would have ensured a more fluid transition between acts.

The staging is simple, but by performing as a promenade piece, the church grounds are used effectively for most of the play. It was a cold evening, but Richard’s nightmare before the battle seemed more eerie because of it with the wind in the trees dispersing the smoke and sending extra chills down our spines.

Blood, drama and fantastic acting, Iris Theatre’s Richard III is one of the best productions of this play that you will ever see and despite the length, you’re so shocked by the final bloodthirsty scene that it almost feels justified!

Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes