In the Llanarth Group’s richard III redux or Sara Beer [is/not] richard III, Sara Beer, self-described as an “unreliable narrator”, contemplates herself in the role of the much-maligned Richard III. How will the character change if it is performed by a “funny, female, feminist”, indeed what will audiences feel about the ‘hideous…. deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple’ when the actor playing the role shares the same scoliosis (and “doesn’t like horses”)?
One might expect to hear a lot of Shakespearean verse throughout, however, the show is only topped and tailed by it, with a powerful Beer in chainmail (captured on film by Paul Whittaker) in the decaying remains of a castle, sneering at us down the lens. The treatment of the subject matter is far broader and more interesting for it: Kaite O’Reilly’s script provides an efficient recapping of historical and fictionalised interpretations of Richard’s character and adds to the academic robustness of the piece.
This one-woman show is cleverly interspersed with film recordings and live-video capture (particularly entertaining) with contributions from other sources e.g. via telephone conversations with Philippa Langley, the historian who led the 2012 dig that unearthed Richard III’s body in a council-run carpark in Leicester (interestingly Richard’s identity was confirmed by comparing his mitochondrial DNA to that of a female descendent). Beer delights as she explores the various actors who have played the role in the past, including David Garrick, Anthony Sher and Laurence Olivier, who each found their own (questionable) ways of physicalizing the painfully curved spine of the ‘king who turned his back on Christ’ (as depicted in the painting by Hogarth that is projected for us). There are tongue-in-cheek “Outside the Actor’s Studio” segways that poke fun at the self-serving seriousness of method acting, with director Phillip Zarrilli playing a convincing host (one assumes that Beer feels she has not been invited inside the Actor’s Studio).
Deryn Tudor’s simple set of a wing-backed armchair on a platform suits the academic tone of the piece but also serves as the parlour of Beer’s rather spirited grandmother. She sips tea and shares her recollections of a childhood spent in hospital and around her nan’s house. This is when Beer particularly shines as a performer. Her descriptions of the physical trauma of corrective treatment, as well as of the emotional trauma resulting from the negative attitudes of school pupils, teachers and drama schools are poignant. Yet Beer triumphs then and now. She describes how drama and the learning of speeches by rote helped her through her hospital stays. She fought her way into the acting world, has carved out a long career as a successful performer and has become an advocate for disabled artists from across Wales.
Beer, O’Reilly and Zarrilli have worked together before and it is obviously a successful tripartite relationship. richard III redux or Sara Beer [is/not] richard III
is a witty and commanding piece (some might argue that the language is at times heavy and that the blackouts are too frequent and may slow the pace) but it is a strong reminder that we still have a long way to go to eradicate prejudices in the arts and in wider society. For even now, Beer reflects that her body, with its matching curvature of the spine “isn’t the right body”.
This play correctly challenges the precept that one may as a performer inhabit a disability but not earn a 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
Image: Paul Whittaker