A melodrama of genius, was John Dover Wilson's description of Richard III. And that is how it emerges in Terry Hands's latest Royal Shakespeare Theatre version, which is actually his fourth production of the play. We are now in an England of potential night filled with brutal music, boar's head emblems, stabbing lights and a kind of bloodshot madness.
Ever since Olivier gave us his Satanic prankster, there has been temptation to make a case for the hero. But Alan Howard's Richard is monstrously deformed both within and without. His left leg is encased in a silver chain on to which he hangs as if it were a horse's halter, his dangling right arm seems to contain a built-in dagger ever ready to point at people's throats, and once grounded he has difficulty rising to his feet.
The emphasis on Richard's crippled isolation produces some chilling moments like his hobbling entry down the full depth of the stage once he is crowned king and totally justifies the various animalistic descriptions of him: the one weakness of this reading is that it deprives him of the ironic humour that helps him into women's beds and that attracts a loyal core of followers .
But given Mr Hands's interpretation of Richard III as nocturnal melodrama, it would be difficult to see how it could be better executed. He doesn't give us many laughs, but he does provide considerable variety of invention. For instance, the scene in which Richard solicits the Lord Mayor's vote at the Tower of London becomes a play-within-a-play enacted on a wooden trestle table with Gloucester and Buckingham beating drums and trying on clothes whipped out of the property basket. That at least conveys the grotesque unreality of a slightly absurd sequence.
And Mr Hands pulls out all the stops at the end with the ghosts of all Richard's victims lining up at Bosworth and crowding round him in clusters while Richmond puts in the sword. It is an extravagant notion; but it certainly gives you the sense that England has been purged of evil.
I must admit that at times I yearned for the lightness of the famous Rustaveli production and for the unflustered Stalinesque authority of Chkhikvadze's performance. But Mr Hands's production has pace, narrative excitement, and a telling use of multi-angled lighting which picks out the characters like searchlights pinpointing enemy planes in battle. And what Mr Howard's Richard lacks in sardonic wit, it admirably makes up for in ravenous frenzy: indeed it rounds out his astonishing portrait gallery of Shakespeare's kings with a diabolic ferocity.
But we also have the strongest all-round cast we have seen on the main Stratford stage for a long time. This is really the Shakespearian first eleven in which Derek Godfrey's biscuit-dry Buckingham, Barbara Leigh-Hunt's battle-scarred Margaret, Richard Pasco's gently-spoken Clarence, and Domini Blythe's coarse-grained Elizabeth (hitting people with her handbag like the lady in Rowan and Martin's Laugh in) score all round the wicket.
Recently Stratford's small theatre has often seemed like the real centre of activity; with this production and Richard II, the main stage once again comes into its own.
Were we British a more courageous race, theatrically speaking, we would stand with conviction to give a standing ovation far more often than we do.
In America, an actor who can merely be audible is given such an accolade; heaven knows what a UK thespian would have to do! For if anyone deserved such a distinction it was Alan Howard and the cast of Richard III last night. As it was, the applause went on for some seven minutes - and it was richly deserved.
If Olivier was the Richard of his generation, Howard is the equivalent of ours, in a masterly, totally absorbing piece of bravura acting which is never less than spectacular: he brilliantly conveys the essence of the whole production by Terry Hands. The key word is duplicity.
Howard's Richard is less idiosyncratic than we might have come to expect from the gentleman, far more measured than I would have thought possible; but it is a sinister and sonorous performance, with a king trapped in a kind of curious psychological confessional.
When we reach the end of the King's monologue we have a violent conclusion superbly staged and chilling in its impact.
This is the RSC production of the season, a magnificent evening's encounter with superior talent. Domini Blythe's playing of a monarch on the make in the first act to become a pathetic wreck of a woman in the second; so too is Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Margaret, a red-eyed and bitter old harridan, brimming with unconcealed envy and venom. Sinead Cusack also gives us a sterling performance as Lady Anne, and all three ladies sweep any competition to one side when they hold the centre of the stage.
All this takes place on a bare set, sombre, black, highlighted merely by severe front lighting and the appearance of silvered badges of state. This all serves to focus attention on the central character, a loathsome playing of England's most wronged Royal; but Howard was the measure of the man in Shakespeare's creation, and he does not flag for a second.
Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 18.3.81