Thomas Tyrrell reviews Everyman Theatre’s outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, part of Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival: Everyman ’21.
Now the winter of our Zoom fatigue has given way to a cautious summer of reopening, Everyman Theatre, Cardiff’s tireless amateur troupe, have managed to restore to us at least some of the pleasures of outdoor theatre. Compared to their usual temporary venue in Bute Park, this production of Richard III is remarkably small scale. The venue is uncovered, and audiences are asked to bring their own seats. The gardens of Insole Court make a lush sylvan backdrop to the murders and scheming of the tyrannical Richard, with an upper terrace employed to give us a split-level stage, and an extended family group playing multiple roles works hard to give us authentic live Shakespeare, of a kind that has been so sorely missed.
Steve Smith makes a wonderfully smarmy Richard and shines in a title role that makes or breaks the play. Without a Richard who can gloat, charm and plot with his audience, the play would be dead in the water, and it’s a relief to see him compel the audience’s attention from the first line to the last. He can turn from oily charm to screaming fury at a moment’s notice, but perhaps his finest bit of business is the pose he strikes, sprawling casually on the coffin of the murdered Prince Edward while contemplating seducing his widow. Almost as good is Cressida Ford as Queen Elizabeth, who conveys her growing desperation as Richard ruthlessly imprisons and eliminates her children from the line of royal succession and makes his own grab for the throne. Their scene together in the second half of the play, when Richard makes his bid for the hand of her daughter, is one of the highlights, aptly capturing the mixture of repulsion and horrified attraction that this scheming manipulator rouses in the hearts of women.
For all its successes, it cannot be denied that this is still a maimed ritual compared to the large casts and stage spectacle of Everyman productions past, when they proved more than capable of giving us a production of Fiddler on the Roof, or The Merchant of Venice in 80s London. A small cast necessitates multiple roles that are not always clear or very effective, especially when overtaxed actors are required to play younger than their age. The conspicuous dullness of the modern dress costuming is a decided falling off from the elaborate and enjoyable settings of Everyman productions past, and Richard’s braces are one of the very few touches of style in a production which sees the armies of York and Lancaster clad in coloured tabards like dinner ladies.
And yet, when night descends in the second half, so does the enchantment of the theatre. Darkness allows some inventive and enthralling lighting decisions, using lamps and torches to make the entry of the ghosts of Richard’s victims a spine-tinglingly dramatic affair. With the lowering of nature’s house lights, the actors raise their game and give us a second half that transcends the modest resources of music, lighting and stagecraft to give a vivid picture of Richard’s decline and fall. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID restrictions, no-one would have blamed Everyman Theatre for shelving their plays until next season. They should be congratulated for giving us an ambitious production that struggles with and finally transcends its limitations.
Thomas Tyrrell has a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University and is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.