As the Joker in Batman or Quentin Tarantino reminds us, it is possible—on stage or screen at least—to put the “laughter” in “slaughter.” Propeller’s staging of Richard III revels in blood, death, and the gruesome detail. Under Edward Hall’s direction, Britain becomes a (s)laughterhouse, a butchery where Richard’s (the towering Richard Clothier) machinations send a seemingly inexhaustible number of characters to their untimely, but creative, ends. To illustrate the point, during the coronation scene, a carpet of body bags lines the stage, atop which Richard and Lady Anne (Jon Trenchard) stumble along. Richard III, as conceived by Propeller, is a wickedly delightful, at times stomach-churning production that finds a dark, campy humor in Shakespeare’s text.
Propeller is an all-male company, playing two shows in rep—Richard III and Comedy of Errors. Entering the auditorium at the Norwich Theatre Royal, the audience is greeted by designer Michael Pavelka’s cold steel scaffolding on a stage populated by cast members dressed in white butcher coats and white facemasks. Instruments of cutting and torture litter the stage. There is a hanging rack of axes, hacksaws, and cleavers, and cast members sport razors and heavy wooden sticks. And, following the maxim that “A gun on stage in act one must go off in act three” the production makes full use of its arsenal of destruction. Clarence’s (John Dougall) death is a teasingly protracted affair, drawn out to excruciating lengths as one event after another stops the murders (Sam Swainsbury and Richard Frame) from completing their task. The murder—when it finally arrives after making the audience squirm in its seat for what feels like ages—involves a knife. And then a drill. But even after the drill, Clarence still manages to get up off the floor, only to be drowned in a bucket. Other creative stage deaths include a chainsaw (a plastic screen covers the stage, we hear chainsaw noises and screams, and then bits of fleshy blood splatter, repeatedly, on the screen) and a re-enactment of what it must be like to be, in Macbeth terms, “unseamed” from “nave to th’ chops.” For the record, it involves a large handful of intestines. For all of the gory deaths, Richard’s own is brief and nonchalant—a gunshot—a dismissive, straightforward ending for the larger-than-life butcher.
Subtle, this is not. But then, there is no reason for it to be. The text invites an envelope-pushing performance with its multiple and sudden deaths, its epic relationships, and its theatrical curses. Yet the production finds a sweet spot in the performance that can be both over the top and attuned to the emotional seriousness of the text. Indeed, it is the production’s exploitation of the conflicting tones—comic overabundance and heightened tragedy—that make it so perversely enjoyable. Clothier’s Richard acts as master of ceremonies, directing the action and manipulating feelings. His scenes with Trenchard and later Queen Elizabeth (Dominic Tighe) are stunning in their bold self-assurance. Tony Bell brings a grave and serious weight in his Queen Margaret, sprinkling blood on the faces of those under her curse.
The sumptuous costumes are (late Victorian?) period-esque, in shades of black, blue and gray, heightening the contrast when Richmond (Robert Hands, doubling as King Edward IV) appears in an all-white suit to save the kingdom. Important to the production’s atmosphere is its music, arrangements of Dies Irae and Pie Jesu along with folk tunes and madrigals (the program contains a fascinating note from Trenchard about the company’s musical choices). If there is a criticism of this production it is that it is too brimming with ideas, a feeling of just a bit too much squeezed into the packaging. An electric guitar and rendition of “Bloody, bloody England” feel out of place in a world otherwise fitting with a turn-of-the twentieth-century staging.
Richard III from Propeller is a sight to behold, and one not easily forgotten.