Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Swan Theatre

Richard III, by an unknown artist – National Portrait Gallery

Fellow Readers:  I welcome this morning Christopher Sandrawich, in a guest essay on the new production of Richard III at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon – [Chris last posted here on his visit to Worthing, wherein he wrote of his concerns about the closing of the “Library Passage”, the twitten frequented by Jane Austen during her stay in Worthing in 1805.] – I expressed some jealousy of his attendance at this new take on Richard III, and he kindly offered to write a full review, which only increases my jealousy to nearly rabid levels … I confess to an obsession with the much maligned Richard since reading many years ago Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time,

[The Daughter of Time – cover from Open Library]

where through the eyes of her detective Alan Grant , she sets out to “prove” the innocence of Richard III – [ a compelling read and I highly recommend it!] – but I digress! – and how does any of this relate to Jane Austen you might ask? – well,  let’s recall her first paragraph in Northanger Abbey, where she denigrates Catherine’s father so: 

Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard … 

And later in a 1796 letter to her sister, she remarks on Mr. Richard Harvey’s match being put off, “till he has got a better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes.” [Letters, p. 10] 

No one has ever satisfactorily explained this aversion to the name ‘Richard’ – and if you read her History of England, her tale of Richard III is a tad contradictory, so one does not quite know what she really thought [forever the elusive Jane] – though she does say she is “inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man” [see above!] and later “I am inclined to beleive true” that he did not kill his two nephews. So Jane likely would have been a reigning member of the Richard III Society, no?

[You can read Austen’s History here at the British Library, and here at Jane Austen’ Fiction Manuscripts , both in the original edition and facsimile. Here is Cassandra’s sketch of Richard, hump and all:

… but I am digressing again, the ‘play is the thing’ after all, and here is Chris on that right now,  Shakespeare’s view of poor Richard though it be:


Richard III at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
on Thursday 15th June 2012

As those in the know, know, we are well into the start of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 planned to coincide with the Olympic Games and Para-Olympic Games taking place in London, England this year. Using some thirty stages throughout the UK and bringing artists, companies, directors and actors from all over the world we are seeing an unprecedented celebration of all of Shakespeare’s work which is as daring as it is inspiring as all the productions and adaptations are fresh and new. As we live close to Stratford, if ninety miles is close, then six plays have been pre-booked for family and friends. As the Tempest at the RSC has already come and gone leaving us panting for the next, then a few days ago it was the turn of Richard III at the Swan Theatre. Four still to see.

All three Stratford stages have a new, and similar, look with a “Thrust Stage” and a three tiered horseshoe around for spectators which allows for uninterrupted views and a warm closeness to the action that is almost tangible. The action is as central to the audience as seems possible to achieve and all with the minimum of fuss. All the stages also allow for actors to make entrances along aisles through the spectators onto any of the four corners, and frequently lines are spoken just feet away or from behind the spectators. This allows the audience an intimate relationship with whatever is unfolding right in front of, or alongside, their vantage point. The RSC, The Swan and the Courtyard now differ only in size. Chatting to other theatre goers before the performance we found some who had been to the RSC the previous night buzzing with fervour about Julius Caesar whilst others who had seen King John at The Swan were interested in what a different play, but with the same actors, would feel like for them. I find these newly redesigned staging arrangements to be an improvement on the old, but I never felt any previous cause for complaint, anyway.

The Programme opens with something ‘saucy’ from James Shapiro that I will share with you,

In 1602, John Manningham, a law student at London’s Middle Temple, jotted down in his journal a racy story that had been making the rounds:

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen grown so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.”

David Garrick as Richard III – by Hogarth –Liverpool Museum

Amusing though the story is it provides an insight into just how charismatic, powerful and sexy the character of Richard III appears despite the hump, limp and withered hand on top of being “cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. The problem for any actor playing Richard III is just how to be so very seductive, both with other characters and the audience, whilst trying to resemble “a bottled spider”, and in turn show such a bewildering array of character traits in turn as they suit the opportunity of the moment. Taking the audience with him on his ascent and continuingly vicious butchering ascent to the throne is an art so that we almost feel sorry for his immediate fall happening abruptly in the classical style of the Roman Plays about despots. To say that the character facets and motivations of Richard III are complicated is like saying astronomical distances are large. Much easier to say than to grasp or understand.

[Jonjo O’Neill as Richard III]

The actors were attired mainly in modern dress apart from weapons and armour but Richard III wears boots and leathers (just like a biker) throughout, even when he puts on ermine for his crowning moment. There is little in the way of props and so the rapidity with which the scenes change from the Tower, to Streets, Castles, Palaces and countryside keeps the pace of this long play galloping along. Including a twenty minute intermission, presumably whilst Jonjo has a lie down and takes pause to get his breath back, this play runs for three and a quarter hours. Only Hamlet’s longer. Jonjo O’Neill and all the cast require a large dollop of stamina to maintain this level of intensity.

The beauty of seeing new productions of Shakespeare’s Plays that bring the old lines afresh to modern audiences is to see how the Director’s interpretation works, or not. It is simultaneously a challenge to avoid reworking the past and a risk to make a new departure into untested waters. I was idly wondering if we were in for a rendition of the play along the lines Richard Dreyfuss’ character in “The Goodbye Girl” is forced to take in his off-Broadway production; and if modern audiences were quite ready yet to see a version in which Richard tries to become King and Queen at once. Well, Roxana Silbert’s direction takes a moderately conventional line, as one might expect.

You can see a clip of O’Neill as Richard III in Act I,  Scene I  here:
[a youtube link that refuses to embed today!]

However, Jonjo O’Neill’s teeth were blackened (at least I hoped so) so that they resembled “points” reminding me strongly of Christopher Walken’s “Hessian Horseman” in Sleepy Hollow (a film of a Washington Irving story) and I wondered if the same hellish, relentlessly remorseless, murdering intent as the headless horseman was being suggested with each of Gloucester’s crocodile smiles. Whilst on the subject of films I rate Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard very highly indeed. It’s well worth watching and boasts an all-star cast.

Jonjo O’Neill’s depiction of Richard III is wryly beguiling, horrifying, dynamic, passionate, charmingly subtle, brutal, and focused on his ambitious rise, and rise, as those between him and the throne are disposed of piecemeal, by trickery, villainy or craftily laid spoors, and always by the hands of others. The energy displayed throughout in these constant betrayals wanes only as does his declining star in the ghost-filled night before Bosworth Field. To watch at the start of events Jonjo confront, bewilder, disarm and finally seduce the beautiful Lady Anne as she stands by her husband’s bier is as exciting as it seemed unlikely in its success. After this he seems capable of anything. 

The role of Richard III is very demanding containing over 1000 lines and about one-third of the play. There is hardly a scene he is not in, but even when he is not speaking other characters are speaking of him, mostly with as much spluttering vim as they can muster. Whilst I thought Jonjo O’Neill’s performance was a triumph, it must be said that the whole cast put a lot of energy and verve into their performances and the rousing ovations given at the end were well-deserved.

First Quarto, wikipedia

In writing this “History Play” about Richard III, Shakespeare synthesises a rich brew of facts and scenarios from a wide range of historical, literacy and dramatic sources. We must recognise the politics of the times and realise that Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet’s and Elizabeth I was a Tudor just like Richmond who defeats him in battle. So, like Thomas More before him Shakespeare paints Richard much blacker than other accounts may show. Looking at likely sources we have Edward Halle’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548) from which Shakespeare takes the nightmares before the Battle of Bosworth and the suggestion for “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” It is said that Shakespeare gets his idea for the wooing of Lady Anne from the Senacan tragedy Hercules furens with Lycus’ wooing of Megara. There is also a document edited by Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) from which Shakespeare takes the idea of Henry’s corpse bleeding afresh with Richard III mere presence coupled to the violence of the original deed. But it is Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, so biased against Richard as to make him Machiavellian, and “The Prince” was widely read at the time, and gives full reign to the idea of ruthlessness in powerful men when disposing of competitors whilst dissembling and breaking promise as it suits. It must be borne in mind that these plays are fictions and any attempt to treat them as historically accurate is doomed to failure. It was Shakespeare’s intention, it seems, to entertain and explore ideas about human relationships and the truth of history is a casualty in this exercise. The Play is very popular and still entertains today, and in turn I was staggered, bewildered and shocked as I followed headlong the tortuous twists and turns (trying not to be confused by the multiplicity of Edwards) in hot pursuit of Richard’s rise to power, and left the theatre thrilled, entertained and wondering if this sort of thing still goes on in the corridors of power . . . . . . . . . . . . . surely not?


Further Reading:

@2012 Jane Austen in Vermont, by Christopher Sandrawich

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Swan Theatre

  1. Hi Chris. You talk about the pace of Jonjo O’Neil’s acting and the intensity of your experience watching this production. I think you have caught more than a whiff of that excitement and energy in your review. A very good review.. Well done.
    It reminds me that it is a while since I have seen any Shakespeare. My family and I saw Judy Dench play Titania in Midsummer Nights Dream at The Rose
    Theatre in Kingston upon Thames last year. She played it as an ageing Queen Elizabeth and it was set in an Elizabethan court. Of course she was effortless and amazing.

    The portrait of Richard III in The National Gallery is one of the first portraits you come to when entering the Tudor gallerys on the top floor .The next portrait is that of Henry Tudor. The rest follow. At the top of the escalator turn right for the Tudor gallerys and Richard and turn left into the 18th century gallerys for Cassandra’s portrait of Jane.

    The Tudor portraits are amongst some of the most amazing portraits in the portrait gallery. They show the faces of the most powerful men in England, intelligent, enormously rich and the power and confidence just oozes out of those eyes.


    • Hi Tony – thanks for responding to Chris’s review! – How lovely to see Dench as Titania, Dench brilliant in anything she does [I watched her last night in J. Edgar playing his MOTHER! – now there’s a stretch! – but she was amazing…]

      Thanks Tony for taking us on the tour of the NPG – he Tudor portraits are some of my favorites at the NPG – Richard the most moving to me…


  2. Hi Janeite Deb – Your initial remarks about how little Jane Austen cared for the name “Richard” put me in mind of ‘Persuasion’ where we have:

    “My brother,” whispered one of the girls; “mamma is thinking of poor Richard.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for”

    Jane clearly selects and attaches the name Richard to this “Dick Musgrove” about whom she says little but none of it is to Dick Musgrove’s advantage.


    • Yes, Chris, another great example of what Austen does with that name “Richard”! – poor Dick Musgrove, he is treated no better than her “Jack” in Jack and Alice – she was more than brutal when she needed to be! Too bad someone didn’t think to write down what this antipathy to “Richard” was all about!

      Thanks again Chris for this great review of Richard III,


  3. Hi Janenite Deb: What a delight to read your piece oday – I too am an ardent Richard III defender having read “Daughter of Time” some 50 years ago in my teens. It is so nice to find someone else who read it and was convinced by its premise. Despite Shakespeare’s factually incorrect version written in deference to his Tudor Queen, it is a wonderful dramatic version, and I have always enjoy watching the movie version with Laurence Olivier playing Richard with such delightful villainy.


    • Hello Janeite Joan! – yes, I think “The Daughter of time” did much to sway people into Richard’s corner – Tey’s intention… I once met a gentleman in Scotland who was so obsessed with R-III that he would annually trek to Bosworth Field to mourn him – hearing the “swoosh” of swords as he walked about – he was the reason I became so interested in R-III – he was SO convinced of his innocence – the truth shall remain locked to us – but the great literature that resulted, regardless of one’s side, is more than worthy of our attention as you so rightly state – I am currently reading Wolf Hall, a beautifully written attempt to make Thomas Cromwell a human being, something history did not… what is the “truth” one wonders?

      Thanks for visitng Joan,


  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Courtyard Theatre, by Chris Sandrawich « Jane Austen in Vermont

  5. Pingback: Jane Austen on Richard III ~ Guilty, or “A Very Respectable Man”? « Jane Austen in Vermont

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