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.

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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

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This month, at London’s Royal Festival Hall, the BBC Concert Orchestra performed some of the finest music ever to grace the films of Shakespeare’s works

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[Images: BBC Concert Orchestra]

Shakespeare’s work has inspired a variety of classical composers and has fascinated film makers from Olivier to Branagh. At the start of the concert conductor Keith Lockhart tells us that Shakespeare’s language is “in itself music” and speaks of his admiration for the composers featured this evening.

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We are treated to a couple of extracts from scenes of Shakespeare’s plays recited by four actors, including the brilliant Sam West. It’s great to hear how differently composers chose to highlight certain points in a speech. Michael Nyman wonderfully conjures up the sounds of magic for Prospero in his score to the 1991 film Prospero’s Books.

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Patrick Doyle, in his 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, places a romantic melody beneath Benedick’s speech, with stabbing dissonant strings on the words Here comes Beatrice”. The strings brilliantly reflect the comedy of the scene and the passionate tension between the two soon-to-be lovers.

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The most revealing moment of the evening is William Walton’s 1948 composition for Hamlet. The opening chords immediately recall the sound of a classic ’40s film. Walton’s soft, warming brass generates a slightly uneasy feeling, suggesting a powerful yet volatile atmosphere where things are not quite at peace.

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We are played a lot of Walton’s score and it’s at its most powerful when underscoring Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech, recited here by West. Walton beautifully underpins the fraught tension going on in Hamlet’s soliloquy. The orchestra attack certain moments with powerful and sharp crescendos echoing Hamlet’s struggle.

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Lockhart conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra with aplomb. The orchestra’s rendition of Nino Rota’s 1968 score for Romeo and Juliet is particularly poignant, and the evening has a moving finale with the suite from Stephen Warbeck’s 1998 score to Shakespeare in Love.

Go here for the official BBC Concert Orchestra website.