Bell Shakespeare’s current production is a slick ensemble piece led by Kate Mulvany who gives a consummate performance. She is incredible! Every inch of her portrayal of Richard III is thrilling. Mulvany conveys Richard’s megalomania, hateful nature and his cruelty like a heavy-duty jackhammer while at the same time she elicits much empathy for him from the audience. There are moments when it is so easy to view the callous Richard as a victim of unfortunate circumstance and as one whose behaviour can be rationalized. This is the nub of the play and this is what this production does so beautifully along with other very appealing aspects.

One of these aspects is the ensemble work. The cast of ten remains on stage for the entire production. This gives a sense of people standing sentinel but unaware that they are implicated in something horrific and morally wrong. If one is witness to evil but stands by doing nothing, then it is argued that this is as bad as the evil being perpetrated.

Director Peter Evans masterminds this visually on stage with the actors either in statuesque form or moving like ballet dancers around the cramped stage. The art deco-ish set (Anna Cordingley), with some modern day additions, stays the same throughout with only minor adjustments to the furniture to denote different settings – a battlefield, a throne room, a tent and outside of a church. This has the effect of defining the psychological space, the claustrophobic world of power and the nature of those who inhabit it. It is a room from which escape turns out to be impossible or not desired. Everyone is waiting and vying for reward and status all the while not realizing what is at stake – ultimately one’s life.

The ensemble breaks into singing traditional English hymns in the scene changes as they indulge in dreamlike/nightmare moves. Handel’s Zadok the Priest is pumped loudly a couple of times sending the stage in a chaotic mix of bodily action so well executed it was reminiscent of Stephen Berkoff’s well directed ensembles with the mix of staccato and elongated movements.

Excellent adjustments are made to Shakespeare’s text resulting in some amusing moments like where Ratcliffe (James Lugton) hovers over Richard who, after a momentary pause, informs Richard of his name in reaction to his bewildered stare.

There are many small but very smart directing decisions constantly made by Evans; for example, at the completion of the scene where Richard feigns holiness and his job a fooling the crowd is done, Mulvany’s Richard tosses the bible aggressively and contemptuously back into the hands of the bishop. There is another brave and remarkable moment when Richard strips down to his underwear as he manipulates the crowd.

This production obviously belongs to Mulvany. It is a performance of our times. Her delivery of Shakespeare’s words is so sharp, beautifully enunciated and effortless that is sounds like contemporary everyday parlance – an achievement most Shakespeare companies aspire to produce. The play’s predominate theme about leadership and followers is well conveyed. What makes a good or bad leader? Richard leads by using manufactured news, by the bending of the truth, and by meting out of punishment at the snap of a finger; not to mention his deft way of currying favour to all those at his disposal because of his position of power. There are parallels with our contemporary state of our local and world politics.

Mulvany’s direct address to the audience is such a highlight. It is conversational, cheeky and sometimes provocative. The quirky way she curls her side lip or furrows her brow, brings extra detail and context to her complex character.

Rose Riley’s Lady Anne is a terrific performance as she teeters from vicious outrage to a fragile mess in the difficult wooing scene at the top of the show. Gareth Reeves portrays Clarence’s extreme fear but measured nature as he faces his murderer. James Evans’ Buckingham is a sheer delight to watch. He portrays the character’s extraordinary trajectory with wonderful naturalism and a quiet presence on stage that engages us.

This production brings to the fore the many aspects of this play which are sometimes overlooked. Mulvany’s Richard understands his hubris and understands what he has done. As Evan’s positions Richard to sit on the floor of the stage during the last few lines of the play, we are shown a man who realises his aloneness even after having achieved all his ambitions. Richard is a misogynist and there are many references to women throughout. With Mulvany playing a man and not playing it as Queen Richard, there is a deeper resonance.

This is a must-see production for those eager to see one of the history plays produced with clarity and creativity.