With shadows looming across the restored walls of the vast Alexandra Palace theatre, there is something of the gothic horror to John Haidar’s production of Richard III. Closed to the public for eighty years, this stunning Victorian theatre preserved in a state of ‘arrested decay’ is a sight worth seeing in itself and perfectly suits one of Shakespeare’s most magnificent, (though far from historically accurate) tragedies. Tom Mothersdale gives a quietly disturbing performance of the deeply twisted anti-hero, lurching through the dark, lonely halls of the castle with a half smile.

In the tottering state, and reeling world of England torn apart by civil war, this disabled, rejected brother of the King, murders and connives his way to the crown. Haider has fun with the many different ways to kill a man (knife, poison, gun, broken neck etc) but for the most part it’s the psychological collapse of the King that draws you in. We see him rise and at the last, we see him fall, scrambling about alone in the mud of the battlefield as his men abandon him, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’

Chiara Stephenson’s elegant design employs a restricted palate with a stage circled by mirrors, reflecting the King’s loneliness and revealing the ghosts of the family he has murdered as one by one they pass over and begin to out-number the living. The castle is deep in darkness from the start – in fact there’s not a chink of ‘natural’ light until Act V when there is a wonderful reveal of scudding grey clouds on the battlefield.

It’s a convincing portrait of a psychopath who has no joy in human feeling, only the lust for power and the thrill of strategizing in order to win the game. His family are suspicious of him from the start, Derbhle Crotty as Elizabeth particularly convincing in her disdain. Extraordinary then that such a character manages to get laughs from the audience, almost winks as he ‘gets away’ with yet another divisive manipulation. Equally impressive in such a vast stage is the way in which the cast, Mothersdale in particular manage to create intimacy with the audience. Struggling with his squeaky leg brace, he has an overgrown, awkward adolescent physicality that elicits something close to sympathy. ‘If I can’t be a lover, I’ll be villain...’ he murmurs.

For all his heinous murders, this is the revenge of a boy who no-one has loved, rejected even his own mother played with poise and fury by Eileen Nicholas. When mass murderer’s comes to light, there is a tendency to ask, what is like to be the mother of a mass murderer? Is she in any way to blame? Shakespeare does not disappoint, and this contemporary interpretation, gives us a fascinating mother, son scene. If our sympathies are stretched as he murders two innocent boys and his wife, it certainly retains a disturbingly convincing psychological realism.

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