Richard III at The Tower of London

I had the opportunity on Saturday 2nd April to see Love and Madness’s production of Richard III at the Tower of London.  This show has already been successfully mounted at the (now sadly ex-ACE funded) Riverside Studios, but after negotiations with the tower, the company was given the right to perform in one of the tower’s large halls in the heart of its premises.

The walk up to the location was perhaps one of the best ‘avant-theatre’ experiences I’ve ever had: the setting sun cast long shadows, making the Spring daffodils look beautiful, and the eerily empty cobbled paths echoed our footsteps as we negotiated our way to the play’s location.  I’d never been to the tower before and way completely amazed by the sheer size and number of buildings within the tower’s outer walls. 

But walking up, I wondered how this production would use these amazing surroundings to its benefit, especially seeing as the whole show had not been designed and constructed with this location in mind.  How would they use this history and space to inform the production?

There were some basic problems which kept coming back to me.  Ask any Shakespeare scholar about the historical accuracy of Richard III and they will laugh at you.  Richard III, written around 1592, almost a century after it Richard’s reign, is shot through with Elizabethan myth-making about the glory of the Tudor dynasty, and their grand work setting England at peace after the civil wars.  Richard III’s characterisation is brilliantly malevolent and wonderfully demonised: Shakespeare’s scene depicting Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne over her dead husband’s body, who he readily admits to have murdered, is an unforgettably sinister scene but completely invented by Shakespeare (this scene does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s sources).  The play can be fascinating if you was to explain Elizabethan ideology and late-C16th fascination with the Wars of the Roses, but does not help provide an historical analysis of the real Richard III. 

Surely setting Richard III in the tower is like playing the Merchant of Venice in the C16th Venetian Ghetto in Venice (see the recent film starring Joseph Fiennes) , or Romeo and Juliet in Verona (where the tourist board have delightfully found a balcony of the mediaeval home of the Cappello’s and decided to licence it for wedding ceremonies!)

These plays were written for Early Modern theatres for which the idea of a ‘historically accurate’ production was as yet an alien concept.  From the little source material we have, it seems that historical period and setting was created by specially placed props and parts of costume to signify period: see the gorgeous Peacham drawing of Titus Andronicus to the left from the period.  If this is a depiction of an actual scene then Titus’s Romanness (he’s the one third from the left) is shown by a small toga draped over his very Elizabethan armour.  Tamara, Queen of the Goths, also has Elizabethan dress but with her hair worn down, probably indicating her goth-like otherness.

So setting Richard III in the tower, and the implication that this will give the production new level of historical authenticity, seems flawed.  But entering the room where the production was to be set, it was clear that historical authenticity was neither claimed nor actively sought by the company.  The production was set in modern dress and in the round, with a small cast of actors doubling many of the roles both of the York and Lancastrian tribes.  The production culminated in the final battle where the cast essentially had to fight themselves: a brilliant metaphor for civil war, but not played with enough candour to stop some smirks from some parts of the audience.  The only obvious use of the location was when the tower was mentioned in the dialogue the actors pointed towards the main part of the tower through one of the windows.  The players ran around the space, spoke soliloquies from behind the rows of seating, and created an intimate feel to the proceedings of the story. 

Simply put, Love and Madness’s Richard III was set at the present moment, at the present location of the tower’s history, in amongst its modern fixtures, its mock-antique roof beams and its helpfully placed metal place tags at locations throughout the site.  During the interval the audience were moved to the tower’s cafe, where chocolate kings and queens of England and ye olde ale could be purchased.  The audience were not shielded from the fact that history has been commoditised in some parts of the tower, just as in any modern ‘historically connected’ tourist site. 

My experience of the event was that the production bought a lively and enjoyable text to life, which consciously mixed a modern design, an early-modern script and staging techniques which are timeless in their ability to create effects of intimacy.  Rather than faux-historical reconstruction, we were treated to something more interesting: the stage space, and the empty tower itself, became for me a place of imagination and freedom.  It became a place of the now.

[Thinking about history and site fits in nicely with my research aims: how does the site of a theatre create a sense of place?  How are classical plays successfully reinterpreted or explored in the contemporary world? In actual fact, Royal Holloway’s Department of Drama and Theatre (and their excellent Theatre History Group) has a planned conference in June 2012 which will include papers about staging theatre in historical settings.  Part of their ‘What Signifies a Theatre?’ research.  I think I’ll  go along and take a look!]

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