Theatre review: Tragedy of Richard III

Posted: February 17, 2011 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

The Tragedy of Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Fred Abrahamse.  With David Dennis, Marcel Meyer and Anelisa Phewa. Costume designs by Marcel Meyer and Anelisa Phewa. Set and lighting design by Fred Abrahamse. Puppets by Hilette Stapelberg. Masks by Izelle Grobler.  Soundscape by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder.  at Artscape Arena until 19 February at 8:15pm. ASTRID STARK reviews

First published in the Cape Times, Feb 2011

As the title informs, this production doesn’t make for an evening of light entertainment.  Shakespeare’s drama was said to have been written around the 1590’s and it is a story filled with multiple murders, betrayal, disease and war. In a nutshell, what follows is the story of King Edward the 1V’s youngest brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, who goes on a murderous spree in his quest to become King. He doesn’t hesitate to slay his brother, among many more, and marry for power.  After a string of bloody murders, he has a ghastly dream where all the deceased visit him and reminds him of his atrocities. He is killed in the battle at Bosworth Field.

Marcel Meyer plays the megalomaniac Richard III, as well as Lady Anne and Queen Margaret. David Dennis is the Duke of Clarence and no less than six other mixed gender characters. Anelisa Phewa acts as Lord Hasting and another six characters.  Between the three actors they tackle the entire cast of the play which, with such dense text, must be challenging in itself. When they play the female roles they do so by slipping, rapidly, into various dramatic costume changes. Large bossoms, masks, wigs, and headgear aims to cover up their masculinity, but the women become grotesque and crude impersonations of the female form. One queen’s bossom simultaneously sags and peaks and the nipples have dissolved like Yellytots on a hot plate; which might have plastic surgeons scratching their heads.

Fred Abrahamse’s producer and directorial credits include Station 70. Grease, The Buddy Holly Story, and the award-winning Assassins; among others.  Abrahamse directed and created the stage and lighting design for this production.   Under his imagination the stage becomes a cupboard of the dead which rapidly fills up with the heads of the villainous King’s victims.  Some of the cast members have been recreated by using puppets which is both visually stimulating and innovative.  Of special note are the two Prince puppets. Their marionette-like lives are literally cut short as Richard savagely severs their strings.

Marcel Meyer also handles the costume design. For his own outfit he’s taken no prisoners;  leather, super tight spandex, silver studs punctuating his thigh, and groin leather caps that will make you blush.  It is possible that he is using the large groin cups to emphasise the men’s greed and lust for power.  It’s a bit of a manhood showdown.

David Dennis as Edward IV looked marvellously hideous in his Edward IV sick mask.  Dennis’ Duchess of York wears an equally fascinating and hideously effective headgear as she quivers weakly on her crutches.  Unfortunate is the design of Queen Elizabeth’s prosthetics and shimmering silver costume design. She looks like a wicked cross between Star Wars’ Princess Leia and a Klingon from Star Trek.  The outer space feeling is punctuated by the intermitted ghostly voice, over what one imagines, is an intercom, which had me in a fit of inappropriate giggles.

For the most part thought he costumes are striking and as disturbing as the context of this dark play.

Abrahamse’s overall approach to the direction and set design is also deliciously dark and appropriate.    David Dennis’ elocution and execution of the Shakespearian text in body and voice is captivating. He seems to effortlessly untangle the dense text and unveil the meaning of the words.   In short, he makes the text accessible.  Meyers’ Richard III truly shines when he is taken by a fit of rage.  He seems to forget about labouring through the text as he becomes the twisted Richard III that Shakespeare must have intended.  His less volatile monologues however tend to sag and fizzle out and are difficult to follow and maintain interest in.

Anelisa Phewa unfortunately feels like the weak link in a play where so much is demanded of the actors.  Phewa is still relatively new to the stage in comparison to Meyer and Dennis. It seems as if he is drowning in the myriad of characters that he has to play and he grapples with his elocution.  He seems quite out of his depth when placed next to the more experienced actors. 

Overall the production is fascinating, especially due to the inventive stage design, the enchanting puppets and the outrageous costumes

Richard lll runs at the Artscape Arena Theatre until 19 February 2011 with tickets costing R100 per person and R50 for learners, students and pensioners via 0214217695, or Computicket outlets.:  www.artscape.co.za

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