Friday, April 30, 2010

Review: Richard III


By Melbourne Theatre Company.

A few months ago I was having a conversation with my neighbour after our front windows were smashed on two different occasions. He's in his 60s and even though he left Italy when he was 11 he still has a really thick accent and some strangely pre-WWII attitudes. For instance, he's certain that the brick through his window was the result of a centuries-old, transcontinental enmity between Lebanese and Jewish people, and the idea that he's an innocent victim of a bizarre imagined race war makes for entertaining banter at least.

He's a lovely fellow with some odd opinions, is what I'm telling ya. When he started up about how he sadly had to hand over all of his guns during a firearm amnesty a couple of decades back, I got a bit concerned. He then went on to explain that if he'd caught the baddies he wouldn't have shot them anyway – of course – because that just gets you into more trouble. A better solution would be to do what they did back under Mussolini's reign: get a pint of castor oil and force the vandals to drink it. For the next six months they'd be crapping themselves several times a day, which would mean they couldn't hold down a job or live a normal life. That sounded like a suitable punishment, by his reckoning, and it's a sad thing that nowadays you can end up the criminal if you get caught forcing a man to drink a pint of castor oil. Look at Italy under Mussolini, though: no criminals there, he said.

And then came the clincher: “I'm not saying we need a fascist leader,” he explained. A shrug. “Weeeell. Maybe for a little bit.”

That's pretty much what you get with the MTC's Richard III. It's a glorious and unashamed ode to The Villain – the deformed Richard isn't here pathologised as a product of a corrupt society (though I do love a “I'm merely the monster you maaaaade me!” kind of story); the themes of Divine Right and fatalism are left to simmer unattended; and despite a cursory nod to contemporary global politics the allusions to today are secondary to what's put front & centre: one mean-as-hell bastard. We don't know why Richard is such a sadistic cock, but we don't really care either. In fact, even he doesn't seem to have a clue and his sometimes chilling “So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin” here comes across more like “Jesus, my batshit crazybrain is starting to give even me the heebiejeebies!”.

This isn't to say that it's a simplistic production – it's just that everything is turned up to 11, from performance to design. The set is one of the best the MTC has ever created – a massive revolve where the offstage sections are continually being rearranged so that as it spins Richard can appear to be storming through countless rooms. We get offices, hospitals, jail cells and execution chambers, bedrooms, boardrooms, bathrooms and more. The cast of around 20 also (mostly) play multiple characters, which adds to the sense of volume the piece develops.

The one exception is the sound design, which is oddly muted and flat. A lot of the time it sounds like outtakes from John Carpenter's The Thing – low, monotonous synth notes that too overtly state “this is dramatic” without really making it so.

What impressed me about this one, however, was its negotiation of what is known in critical theory as the Shakespeare Cloud (by 'critical theory' I mean my head). Unlike models which treat narrative as a line (or series of lines), the Shakespeare Cloud analyses the ways in which audiences of a Shakespeare play will experience the narrative as a broader cloud of significance. Different viewers may be in different parts of the cloud at the same time, and may switch from one point to another with no transition interval. None of this negatively affects the general reception of the play, as long as they're somewhere within the cloud itself (and not counting the lights for 20 minutes). If a particular production manages its cloud well, an audience member can tune out of, say, Richmond's big rousing speech and start thinking about how Richard reminds them of Forrest Gump a bit, and they'll still be able to get what's happening when people start storming Parliament and throwing paper everywhere.

The point is, if a production puts too much emphasis on any single thing – if there's an exclusive focus on how this particular actor will deliver their “winter of our discontent” bit or if your attention needs to be super sharp when certain lines are delivered or else you'll be bewildered as to why things are happening the way they are, there's a good chance a greater proportion of the audience will drift away as things progress. If you distribute meaning throughout the various elements which make up theatre, however, you'll manage to keep a wider range of onlookers engaged throughout.

This is really just the kind of silly theory that was invented to justify itself, since it was something I distractedly concocted while watching Richard III. But I still enjoyed the piece and had no trouble following it, even when my mind did wander, so clearly it is a true and correct postulation that deserves an honorary doctorate or at least citation in a peer-reviewed journal. I would demand it, but I don't want to be labelled a fascist.

Sumner Theatre, until 12 June.

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