by William Shakespeare
Hard Hatted Richard
Would any Royal parent even consider naming their kid Richard? It doesn't look like we'll be having Richard IV any time soon with William Shakespeare's fictional creation colonizing our minds for centuries.
Then again, we haven't had a James recently either, so that debunks that theory - a bit like Richard III Shakespearean literary theory - a view pushed forward, then replaced by another but its reptilian hide can take whatever current fashions throw at it.
For if you remember, the skeleton of Richard complete with poor twisted spine was uncovered in the full glare of the media spotlight in 2012 and it is with a re-enactment of this image that the Almeida production directed by Rupert Goold begins, together with an audio snippet of a BBC news report.
Indeed the last Plantaganet king's lair and Kingdom is sunk far below the Leicester City Council car park on the Islington stage with a giant drill bit, or is it a outsize crown - or is it a UFO - suspended on high?
For TLT and her cohort-in-crime have to admit they spent the first twenty minutes or so of this Richard III trying to work out exactly what Hildegarde Bechtler's design was.
Luckily it didn't distract us from following the twists and turns of the legend that is Richard (Ralph Fiennes) but we did find this a strange production.
We are all for innovative settings and time mash up, but we think we should have been more caught up in the play rather than our brains working overtime to decipher what the setting and the costumes signified.
The turtle neck jumper and dark suits? Is this some gesture towards Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, a glance towards communist totalitariansm? Or is it collaborationist France or some computer game mash up where skulls are collected on the back wall? Still the final battles are satisfyingly in full armour with a particular burnished glow.
When Richard comes forward on the dimly lit stage and grasps the audience by the scruff of the neck, "determined to prove a villain", it feels like a coherent take on the play. The drills have unearthed a cave where Richard is destined to act out his villainy again and again, trapped in his own subterranean theatre for time immemorial.
But a diplomat he ain't. Sure he confuses young Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham), widow of Prince Edward (senior) whom he has murdered, but he's - literally - up front about the unadulterated power he has over her and she's far more coerced than reluctantly charmed.
It's not only the audience that understands his double dealing (even though sitting mid stalls a couple of times we missed the action in a pit in the stage because of poor sight lines) but all the characters, perhaps not realising howfar he can and does go.
In this stage world of uneasy alliances, the ascent to power starts with his own brother. Clarence (Scott Handy) does not believe his sibling would betray him, not so much out of filial ties but he cannot see the advantage to Richard. When faced with Richard's treachery, he, entirely plausibly and calculatingly, pleads for his life and never loses hope of living on before he is drowned (we won't spoil it for folks who don't know the exact method).
Do we admire Richard in this production? Perhaps if we had not seen other productions or read the text it would have fallen better with us. But there is a lot of use of types and tropes familiar from TV and cinema which do not serve the detailed ambiguities of this devilish Shakespeare text. He does not seem so clever but more a man of brute force on the verge of lunacy by the end whom others allow to gain power by either backing down or thinking they can use him.
Our couple of moments of empathy were physical. During horseplay after the young Prince Edward and the Duke of York (Lukas Rolfe and Oliver Whitehouse on the night we attended) arrive on the scene when the whole audience gave a collective "ouch" as the weakness of Richard's body was exposed. And just watching Richard sitting in profile, the furrows of the lines in his forehead deepening as he planned his next move.
The expedient world of murder continues when the murderer (Daniel Cerqueira) brings into the Royal boardroom a head chopping block as if it were a portable barbecue, just a tool of the trade purchased from a famous shopping website. The victim this time is Hastings (James Garnon), too busy always looking at the latest gossip on his mobile phone and finishing off the paperwork to catch the zeitgeist and threat around him.
There are plenty of such individual performances which catch the eye and ear but to our mind the production failed to hang sufficiently together overall The distraction of wondering why oh why sometimes just became too much.
Just why, oh why, was Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret dressed in a boilersuit? But hers was an interesting interpretation, a dementia grandmother, yet her first exit conveying it was perhaps a front to save herself when she could not save other wives and mothers from her sidelined fate.
The two other female roles, redhead Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin), widowed by the death of King Edward (David Annen) during the play, and the Duchess of York (Susan Engel), mother of Edward, Clarence and Richard, are both distinctive presences, sharply defined.
Nevertheless, again they suffer from having to compete with a production filled with recognizable types and tropes, however well performed, from TV and cinema, which simplify the nuances and ambiguities of the Shakespearean text.
At the same time, Buckingham (Finbar Lynch recently seen in the National's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) is a compelling partner in crime with Richard, held like the murderers by Richard's purse and promise of future rewards.
This is an extremely clear production with flashes of sound in between, and sometimes during action in, scenes like a Law and Order episode.
Its point may be the flattening over the centuries of Richard's flesh and blood into literary legend with television last in a long line of culprits. However ending the play with the 2012 excavation did not leave us with a rumination on the vagaries of power or Richard as the villain having all the best tunes or the fate of women in the play or how literature or vested interest history has treated Richard..
Rather we wondered whether it will work better for us when it is an NT Live broadcast and we shine an amber light on this Richard III of great clarity set in a surreal landscape.