I would not like you to think that I stalk Greg Hicks (though obviously I do: aaah, that odd strong Caesar, that agonized Leontes, that bonkers newspaper editor in CLARION…). But hearing that Mehmet Ergen had cast him as Richard III, close-up in the intimacy of the Arcola, meant a three-line whip. And there he was as we came in: sitting in a leather jacket at a bar table, ignoring us, spinning a brass miniature top, slouching and menacing. Everyone’s most feared biker badboy.
Ergen’s production is casually set, minimally propped, modern dress but with suggestions of robe or crown when we need it. The focus is on the text, served with respect and energy by all: especially Hicks, who always speaks Shakespeare as if he had just, in a fit of anger or mischief, had the thought himself. He has Richard’s irresistible wicked vigour: a painedly malicious tension, and plays him as more seriously crippled than most, dragging his lame foot by a chain to his withered arm. Often he bent almost double, head oddly averted from many of his families’ and enemies’ curses, a twisted satirical child grown monstrous. In the small space it sometimes seems a pity he does not catch our eye. But this Richard never willingly catches anybody’s.
Except by a fierce act of willpower and savagery, when he lasers in on Anne. The first test of a Richard is this: Shakespeare’s most audacious scene when he must convince us that he, misshapen and avowedly murderous, can seduce her over the very coffin of the husband he slew. This extraordinary scene, followed by the shrugfed “was ever woman In this humour won?” is particularly breathtaking in this production. Hicks’ hypnotic energy, and the sensuality in both word and fumbled gesture, is properly chilling.
But Ergen’s production is above all ensemble: a real actors’ show, glorying in the language, the violence, and evoking the perennial unease of any country fresh from wars and murders, under a weakening king (Jim Bywater is excellent – quavering, horrified, weakly blaming others for not making him prevent Clarence’s murder). In such a state nobody knows how the dice will fall. A heady neurosis hangs over every character, anxious and wary. Each lord in turn balks at some Ricardian horror and is dispatched: from Mark Jax’ bluff Hastings to Peter Guinness’ long-serving Buckingham.
Only Catesby in his business suit and prim glasses (Matthew Sim, unnervingly a dead ringer for Lord Birt) endures to the last battle, an ice-cold functionary. Brackenbury the Tower keeper, is given an unusual gentleness by Jamie de Courcey; Paul Kemp is a poignant gentle Clarence. All serve the play, moving swiftly, too close to us for comfort, so three hours pass in alarmed fascination.
But it has to revolve around Hicks’ Richard: poisonous, sarky, sometimes hitting a one-line riposte to raise a bark of shocked laughter in the close audience, often hunched inside his private world of hollow hatred. Here is Richard the ultimate unreadable creepy uncle, baited by the cheeky boy Duke of York, who jerks him violently off his feet by his chain, rousing God knows what memories of crippled childhood in a macho world. Here is Richard sadistically preposterous in his final demand for the child Princess’ hand and womb: but also here is a Richard who, with a sudden involuntary jerk, reaches a vain hand towards the mother who has terrifyingly cursed him. His final rising fear is genuinely chilling: the hauntings on the battlefield stand quiet, free of melodrama, ruthless in the play’s flat return to moral certainty.
Box office 0207 503 1646. To 10 June. Arcolatheatre.com