Richard III, dir. Imogen Beech for Combat Veteran Players (https://www.combatveteranplayers.org.uk). Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26 June 2016.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
The Combat Veteran Players is a worthy organization. According to a press release on their website, “the CVP is a theatre company composed of a diverse range of ex-service personnel from different branches of the military who have come together to overcome mental trauma, injury, and related difficulties through immersion in drama, the development of acting skills, and vital performances of Shakespeare’s plays.” It is extremely gratifying to attend a performance by these talented men and women and know that they have tapped into some of the power of Shakespeare that both embodies and transcends the experience of reading and understanding the words of England’s national poet. The CVP have performed at the Swan through the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Open Stages” programme several times. Their return to the Swan for Richard III proved to be a very satisfying, energetic performance of this always-and-again popular play.
Shaun Johnson was impressive in the title role. Johnson’s remarkably candid biography in the production’s thoroughgoing programme states that he suffered mental health problems following a crush injury during active duty tours in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, finally being diagnosed with hypervigilance and PTSD. If any man’s biography would prepare him to play Richard of Gloucester—a career soldier who suffers from physical and mental setbacks after fighting in civil unrest—Johnson’s surely does. His physical movements and expressions convincingly presented a disenchanted soldier who is “determined to prove a villain”—even though he ends up able to “prove a lover” as well. The scene between Richard and Anne (a brilliant turn by Suzy Whitefield) was as riveting as it was disturbing.
It was good to see a mixture of younger and more mature faces on stage, even though it strained belief to think that Peter Biggs as King Edward, Tim Gibson as Clarence, and Johnson as Richard might really be of the same generation, and particularly since Clarence should be older than Richard for historical and plot reasons. It turns out that Gibson, Whitefield, and Hadley Smith (as Catesby) were listed as understudies in the programme—though all three turned in great performances at The Swan. These “understudies” are all recent graduates of Mountview Acadamy of Theatre Arts and, though only Smith served in the armed forces, these younger performers surely learned a lot from their experience with company members, while company members benefited from performing with these professionally trained actors.
Among other regular company members, Andy McCabe shone in the role of Buckingham, and did Caroline Kelly as Margaret. In a play as long as Richard III, it is of course necessary to edit the text to some extent, but perhaps both for the sake of preserving two of the play’s most memorable characters and in order to give these two fine performers more stage time, the cuts could have been more judicious. The part of Buckingham especially is pivotal to the audience’s interpretation of the play, and McCabe’s clear motivations and command of Shakespeare’s language makes him one to watch in future productions. As for other members of the company in other roles in the play, some were quite good, others got the job done, and all contributed to a strong, lively, and intelligent production.
Director Imogen Beech would do well to coach her actors not to start a line over in case of a garbled word in the future, and perhaps another actor or two from the trimmed-down cast could have been prevailed upon to join in the crowd scenes. Nevertheless, the assertively trimmed text played energetically and coherently, and Beech’s choice of a contemporary setting, with recent military-issue clothing and hardware on display, drove home the relevance of the play’s story. Among the medals seen on stage were some very meaningful ones incorporated into Johnson’s costume. The programme explains that the medals pinned to Johnson’s chest included his own—as well as those awarded his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Moreover, Johnson himself “fashioned the crown” that he wore to include “blacked-out artillery cap badges, notably one he wore serving in Northern Ireland.”
The RSC is to be commended for again inviting these talented and exceptional performers to its stage. The Combat Veteran Players have also performed this show at Leicester Square Theatre in London, and they will share this extraordinary production in schools across the United Kingdom.