Richard III, Courtyard Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

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It’s a revelation in itself to see Shakespeare’s Henry VI/ Richard III plays as a tetralogy. Richard III, long viewed as the strongest, is often performed by itself and, when the plays are performed in sequence, the first three are more likely to be abbreviated into two.

It was Michael Boyd’s triumph in 2000-01 to show how extraordinarily the four plays cohere in terms of compelling narrative, visually poetic imagery and dramatic motifs, and how these plays look back deep into medieval myth and forward into the modern era. Last August, the Henry VI plays were revived in much the same medieval look as in 2000-01. But now, in reviving Richard III, the designer Michael Boyd has shifted most elements into the modern era. We’re given guns and digital cameras that work a little too glibly against the background of crowns and cloth-of-gold. The 2001 production made its modern touches more subtly.

Boyd’s production remains gripping in its vivid sense of the play’s architecture, motifs and ironies. Has anyone made more of this play’s dead than he? I am more struck than before by how Richard III’s dead father becomes a silent presence. And is it a new touch to have the dead Buckingham serve as the horse who at first bears Richard on his shoulders at the final battle? There are other strokes that made more effect in 2001, but these make amends, as does the device of making Richard undeformed and unscarred at the start of his final, ruinous dream, until his dead victims come to blight him.

Jonathan Slinger is a sardonic, rasping Richard who often makes his most brilliant impact by speaking with throwaway simplicity, as when before the last battle he soliloquises “There is no creature loves me.” He doesn’t so much inhabit the dark intensity of the role as, along some sort of Brechtian lines, bitingly indicate it. (Is this a portent for the way Boyd’s RSC, in which Slinger is already a key figure, will develop?) I miss individuals from the 2000-01 ensemble, but acknowledge the rare vision with which Boyd turns this play into truly poetic drama.

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