Performer Sara Beer’s take on Shakespeare’s (and history’s) Richard III – and many things beside – is an unpredictable, thoroughly enjoyable show, that flows easily for the 75 minutes of its duration, evokes laughter and reflection in equal measure, and manage to tackle some weighty themes without ever sounding preachy or rhetoric. While preserving a deeply personal feeling, which makes the whole performance intimate, playwright Kaite O’Reilly manages to weave into the script a witty, sometimes rather cutting sense of humour. This is one of the main strengths of the show, which ranges from history to a very specifically Welsh life experience, held together by its own wit in shifting from one narrative line to the next.
While Richard III is ultimately in many ways a pretext for what is truly a tale of bodies (crooked or non-canonical), the way they are perceived and the way they are lived in, the playwright and performance show a remarkable ability to truly engage with Shakespeare’s text. Particularly effective is the use of a language that mimics Shakespeare’s own, in the two sections that open and close the performance. The first, shown through video curated by filmmaker Paul Wittaker, is set in the original place of the battle of Bosworth Field; the second is delivered by Beer on stage. Both manage to pull the audience into the character, or rather into an ambiguous character whose true identity is unclear, mirroring the contradictory statement in the title. The Shakespearian language in these sections, while being only partly Shakespeare’s own, creates an ingenious twist on the original work, that makes the interaction with the Bard’s tragedy more than an excuse to discuss how bodies are perceived on and off the stage. Shakespeare is quoted from in many crucial moments, and often when least expected; the placing of his verse in an unfamiliar context highlights even more how fitting the meaning is.
Holding the stage alone is never simple, but Beer does it gracefully, with a stage presence that is both commanding and nuanced. In the many sections in which the performer’s personal backstory is interwoven with her attempts at tackling Richard and his depictions, one truly feels like, as the section’s title promises, the audience is sitting with Beer in her grandmother’s parlour, listening to personal stories as the thread of her relationship with both Richard the character and her own body unwinds. The video material fits into the narration without being jarring, and Beer’s interactions with her own self on the screen make for some of the more finely humoristic moments of the piece.
This is a charming, witty, occasionally foul-mouthed reflection on how a character develops in the shared consciousness, on how bodies are viewed and lived, and on what drama promises to achieve but not always allows to happen. In its more intense moments, it is thought-provoking; in the light-hearted one, it is uncompromisingly funny. Throughout, it delivers a thoughtful, insightful message without any love for easy truths or unequivocal answers. It does so in a way that is clever without being ponderous, challenging the audience to change their perspective and view things from a different angle. It can be at times merciless – to previous takes on Richard III, to historical character, to the audience, and to the performer herself. But the way in which it is merciless is never gratuitous, and it is what ultimately gives this work its great power and impact.
The stage direction was well-thought and made good use of the somewhat limited space available, albeit with some very minor glitches in the timing. The scene was set in a way that evoked in turn each of the very different places of the narration, without any need for scene changing – a clear example of how a minimalist approach can be greatly successful with works such as these. Visually, the video material was also well integrated in the framework of the stage, feeling like an integral part of the performance; at its best, it functioned like a window opened from the interior of a Welsh home out on the historical sites along the Tudor Trail.
Sara Beer and Kaite O’Reilly’s approach to Richard III is certainly unique and opens many interesting avenues for further discussion. It is a brave piece, and one that demonstrates how Shakespeare’s work can be actualised without being fit into a mold it doesn’t belong in. All in all, the show managed to give a layered interpretation of an iconic character by approaching it from an angle that, while often visited in the past, has never been entirely in the spotlight. It is an excellent, immersive experience that is sure to leave its audience thinking well after its conclusion.
living with one.
richard III redux or Sara Beer [is/not] richard III continues in Chapter Arts Centre 16th and 17th March
Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 14th and 15th March
Theatr Clwyd, Mold on 19th and 20th March
The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven on 21st March
Small World Theatre, Cardigan 23rd March
Sara Beer talks about the performance:
Image Paul Whittaker