There are plenty of shape-shifters in Shakespeare, but few as sinister as Richard of Gloucester. In The Faction’s characteristically stripped-back production, the play’s world of secret plots and political machinations also shifts shape around its scheming protagonist, its performers moulding themselves around the text. As a company, The Faction have always been committed to physicality over props, bodies over stuff. Here, that minimalist aesthetic is pushed to its limit. In the black box space of the New Diorama, the storytelling relies on nothing but the bare stage, the ensemble cast of 21 and the sculpting effects of light and sound.
So limbs contort to form thrones, ghosts, even Richard’s horse as he rides into battle. The most fascinating physical work, though, is done by the aptly named Christopher York as the eponymous rogue. Often, much is made in performance of Richard’s deformity – he is “not shap’d for sportive tricks”, he tells us in his opening speech – but here his physical impairments are as chameleonic as his mood. Confronted by his mother, he retreats into himself, fingers shrivelling up and back hunching over. Elsewhere, his disability is a tool for manipulation, emphasised to plead his case. But then in moments of confidence he suddenly straightens up, tall and broad-shouldered as a soldier.
And soldier he is in this take on the play. When we first see York’s Richard, it is at the close of a dynamic opening sequence of fighting, his vanquished opponent at his feet. But as civil war melts into uncertain peace, he looks less and less comfortable. This Richard itches as much for action as he does for power and the throne. The path he pursues is one of chaos and destruction – eventually for him, too, alongside the mounting bodies of his enemies. While early on he has the air of a confident, calculated politician, summoning and dismissing his pawns with little sweeps of the hand, in the latter stages of the play York suggests the instability and senselessness of Richard’s actions. He has the look of a man driven on by objectless blood-lust, regretting his crimes – such as the killing of one-time ally Buckingham – at the same time as he seems powerless to change his own power-hungry course.
Elsewhere, the success of director Mark Leipacher’s ambitious stage choreography is more patchy. While he’s brought together an exhilaratingly large and hearteningly diverse cast, the quality and tenor of the acting is often inconsistent – in some cases even across the duration of one individual performance. It makes for an odd mixture of styles, as some lines are declaimed as if from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, while others are intimately or hurriedly delivered. Even worse, the effect of such dissonant contrasts finds itself amplified: in a production so reliant on its ensemble, small weaknesses can cause large fractures.
And while a muscular approach suits a text with epic scope like this, the use of movement can be as distracting as it is illuminating. There are some absolutely stunning moments: the light touches of multiple couples highlighting Richard’s initial isolation; the chanting fervour of the final moments before the interval; the chilling crawl of corpses towards the king’s sleeping body in the tent where he lies haunted by his deeds. At other times, though, action on the periphery drags our eyes from the supposed focus of a scene, unhelpfully splintering the drama.
2016 marks the fifth year I’ve kicked off by watching The Faction perform in their adopted home at the New Diorama. The company now feel like an established feature of the new year – part of the theatrical furniture of January and February. At their best, they have the ability to crack open classic texts, finding whole hidden worlds to inhabit. But while this latest production may have all of The Faction’s familiar hallmarks – stripped-back aesthetic, inventive physicality, an emphasis on the ensemble – it offers only a limited window onto Shakespeare’s drama.
Photo: Cameron Slater.