Review: Richard III, Liverpool Playhouse

Adjoa Andoh shines in a rather mixed production of Richard III at Liverpool Playhouse, transferring soon to Rose Theatre, Kingston

“There’s many a gentle person made a Jack”

A first trip back in 30-something years to Liverpool Playhouse saw us take in Richard III, sold to me easily on the presence of Adjoa Andoh as leading actor and director of the production, following on from her incendiary work in Richard II and forever capturing my heart as *my* Serafina Pekkala way back when. She is, naturally, stellar in the title role but elsewhere in the production, a set of choices don’t necessarily pay off in the way they could.

The programme note tells us Andoh’s desire to explore the play through the prism of her own experiences growing up as a Black kid in the Cotswolds in the 60s and 70s – inevitably, irrevocably othered. And in an arresting opening scene, a maypole dance turns into a brutal bullying episode, suggesting an alternative origin story for this most notorious of Shakespearean villains – malevolent or perhaps just maligned?

It’s a fascinating reading of the character and one which Andoh sells for a large swathe of the show. Subverting what we think we know always takes some getting used to but her idiosyncatic interpretation of the verse guides us quite effectively down this path through the Cotswold countryside. It can’t quite stick the landing though, given the dastardly nature of so much of what Richard does later on, no amount of late lamenting can make him a truly empathetic figure and we’re left with a strange taste in the mouth.

The relocation of the production doesn’t quite come off either. Morris dancers are truly a terrifying concept but they’re used very sparingly; indeed, there’s puzzlingly few overt references that would situate it with any real specificity (the visitations are very well done though). Instead, patchy accent work proves a constant distraction and Maybelle Laye’s costume design of identical white pyjamas has the effect of flattening the ensemble, which is a real issue in a first half full of supporting characters who need to be better delineated so one know what is happening at court.

Bright spots do emerge with some performances – Joseph Kloska’s manipulative Buckingham is a shot in the arm to many a scene and Rachel Sanders’ Elizabeth is wonderfully impassioned as her losses mount. But for every plus – lighting designer Chris Davey’s creation of vivid silhouettes – there seems to be a minus – Yeofi Andoh’s folk-inflected score never quite integrating with the production, too often an intrusion rather than an innovation. A bit of a frustrating one, in all honesty.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Richard III is booking at Liverpool Playhouse until 22nd April and then 26th April – 13th May Rose Theatre, Kingston

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