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Crookback – Etcetera Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Creator: Tim Welham

Director: Megan Watson

Reviewer: James Bartholomeusz

[rating:4.5]

crookbackThere is perhaps a rule in theatre that the size of a production’s cast is proportional to the gamble it’s willing to make. It stands to sense: a large cohort of actors might lead to lop-sidedness or lack of direction, but at least the weight is spread. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a one-man play rises or falls on the strength of its single performer. It is the gamble made by Tim Welham’s new adaptation of Richard III – and that gamble pays off supremely.

More than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III is dominated by its protagonist, and with good reason. As the attention surrounding last year’s discovery of his skeleton showed, we are still captivated by this king who has found himself on the wrong side of history: England’s last mediaeval monarch, vilified by the succeeding Tudor dynasty and confirmed in the popular imagination as a psychopathic cripple by the Bard himself. If Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays it is because of this figure, whose evil is both more believable than Iago’s and more exquisitely devilish than even Macbeth’s.

Part of the reason Crookback works so well is that Welham takes what is already a de facto one-man play and makes it one de jure. His characterisation of Richard – eloquent, lecherous, and just a touch camp – is superb, yet his range also impresses. He develops idiosyncrasies for each of the other characters (crone for the ousted Queen Margaret; bolshie street-kid for the young Prince Edward) which keep us on track and the performance fresh. The effect is one of a highly cultivated multiple-personality disorder, working brilliantly given the intimacy of the performance. The set does its part here: we are surrounded by crude chalk drawings of roses and spiders, a hit-list of Richard’s enemies, and, in the centre, his ultimate goal, the throne.

The only downside of this compression is that is presupposes a good existing knowledge of the play. Plots were not Shakespeare’s strongpoint (perhaps fittingly, they were often lifted from elsewhere) and a newcomer to the material or the arcane logistics of Plantagenet genealogy could easily be lost. If, however, the audience knows the play already then they will undoubtedly enjoy the fresh take. The plot, after all, has always been at Richard’s command: he tweaks the strings, manoeuvring his way to victory before he is finally overtaken by the force of prophecy and Henry VII’s succession.

Welham has created an extraordinary piece of drama out of an extraordinary script, a dark, humorous and intensely psychological portrait of Shakespeare’s greatest villain. It should not be missed.

Runs until 21st July

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