From the vaults: “A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest with top-notch performances…” Film critic Robin Askew’s 1996 review of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, which unforgettably starred Ian McKellen

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Opening with an action scene strongly reminscent of one of the more audacious stunts in Goldeneye and climaxing in a style that owes more to Terminator 2 than any of those stilted school stage productions which are the closest most of us get to the Bard, Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s reworking of Richard Eyre’s daring stage adaptation is clearly not for the Shakespeare purist. That said, it’s not a crass attempt to bring Richard III to “the kids”, either; rather a bold and inspired reimagining of the play’s universal themes in a handsomely staged civil war-torn alternate-world England of the 1930s.

McKellen is a hypnotically watchable, oily, scheming Richard, cursed by physical deformity but unstintingly ruthless in his pursuit of power in this jazz age Albion awash with the sinister trappings of fascism. Following the death of the King and the accession of his elder brother Edward, Richard’s blood-spattered path to the throne becomes clear. First he must seduce and marry Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) – here reduced to a pitiful junkie with needle tracks up her arms – whose husband he slaughtered during the Civil War.

Richard III Annette
Then, with the aid of the greedy Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and his faithful assassin James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar), this brilliant, twisted strategist sets about removing every obstacle in his way, from his brothers King Edward (John Wood) and the gentle Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) to Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr), brother of the widowed Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening), who meets his end in a particularly grisly manifestation of coitus interruptus.

A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest, pared to just the right length, with top-notch performances from its venerable thesps, including oddly cast American Downey Jr and a suitably regal Bening, Richard III makes outstanding use of its imaginative locations, from the palace at St. Pancras Station to the final tank battle in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. McKellen contributes a performance of such lip-smacking evil – all crocodile smiles and sly asides to camera – that even a ferocious public disowning by Queen Mum Maggie Smith is barely able to deflect it for more than a heartbeat.

This review originally appeared in Venue Magazine.

Richard III (15)
UK / 1996 / 103 minutes
Director: Richard Loncraine.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, John Wood

Richard III ciggy

A new book demonstrates that the legendary ‘curse of Macbeth’ – as depicted in BBC2 TV drama The Dresser – is in fact a relatively modern invention

Watching the excellent adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser on BBC2, there were many moments that tickled our Shakespearean tastebuds.

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Not least of these was when ‘Sir’ (Anthony Hopkins) inadvertently says “Macbeth” in the theatre, and a panic-stricken Norman (Ian McKellen) has to lead him through a strange theatrical ritual to negate the resulting ‘curse’.

The Dresser
Interestingly, a new book, Anecdotal Shakespeare by Paul Menzer, suggests that the infamous “curse of Macbeth” that has supposedly plagued theatres for 400 years is in fact an invented tradition – with no records of it ever being mentioned earlier than 1937!

As The Dresser is set circa 1940, however, that would make it just about historically accurate to include the so-called curse of The Scottish Play.

The Dresser
On the other hand, this vintage clip from the BBC’s Blackadder, which is set in the 18th century, although utterly hilarious, would seem to be somewhat lacking in historical verisimilitude.

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But then, as Shakespeare might have said, why let the facts get in the way of a good story – or, indeed, a great gag?

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Anecdotal Shakespeare
is out now, published by Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury.

(Thank you to reader Gordon Kerry for sending us the Blackadder link)