An OnComm Awards Catch Up
They said it couldn’t be done, but do it they certainly did. British Theatres were first closed down on March 16th 2020 and The Show Must Go Online project launched just three days later with an online reading of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona; thirty six weeks after that, The Tempest drew proceedings to a close. Under the astute direction of Rob Myles and the production nous of Sarah Peachey, the object was to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in the order in which they were thought to be written at the rate of one per week (oh, and they did a few extra bonus shows as well). This phenomenal achievement was recognised with very positive notices and the presentation of a OneOff Award for sustained excellence across the series. The individual show Richard III has now been selected as a finalist for the OnComm Awards and following my recent viewing of the entire Henry VI trilogy, the time seemed right to complete this slice of Shakespearean history by revisiting the success of TSMGO (as those of us lucky enough to take part in a show* learned to call it).
I’d forgotten how impeccably plotted this early success of Shakespeare’s is, with its perfect narrative arc tracing the Crookback’s rise to power in the first half and his fairly speedy downfall in the second. Along the way he is responsible for, even if he doesn’t personally kill them, numerous deaths including that of the man who helped him to get to the top, at least one brother (possibly two), a couple of nephews (though that’s a contentious conclusion in historical debate) and of his wife (whom he married after slaughtering her first husband). Complete with physical disability and a twisted mind he is one of Shakespeare’s most glorious villains and it’s no wonder that some barnstorming actors (Garrick, Olivier, Sher, McKellen) have all relished playing the role. In this version Ashley Byam picks up the gauntlet and, especially given the limited preparation time, makes a very good job of it; he certainly finds the fun the character has underneath all the malice. It’s a difficult call on screen to show the famous hump as the actor has to mostly be face on, but the withered arm is put to good use. It’s also not easy starting with some of the most famous lines in the play and indeed Shakespeare generally (Hamlet gets to wait for Act 3 before “To be or not to be….”) although the intimacy of playing so close to camera works to distinct advantage as we are made confidants to his nefarious schemes.
I was particularly impressed by the various Queens that are dotted throughout the text. Wendy Morgan has just the right slightly distracted air as Margaret and Kristin Atherton has a blistering exchange with Byam as Elizabeth in the second half – no mean feat as they are both actually in separate locations. Sarah Ingram as the Duchess of York leaves us in no doubt as to where some of Richard’s darker side comes from. I thought Lachlan McCall seemed a little underpowered as Richard’s right-hand man Buckingham and Luke Barton takes some time to warm up as Hastings although the later appearances hit the spot. As with all of TSMGO’s productions there is an extensive supporting cast from around the globe (an American Catesby and an Australian Tyrrell) furiously doubling the many minor roles that pepper the play. It was nice to see some real children involved as various younger members of the dynasty and making manifest the absolutely all-inclusive ethos of the project’s casting policy. The show was the first in the series to use a returning cast selected from participants in the previous productions so has a slight advantage in that none are fully new to the experience.
Given that Richard III was only the seventh of the shows produced, there are some remarkable advances in presentation and some shoots of experimentation which fully flowered later in the series. Of course, there is the usual “prop passing” from box to box which has become ubiquitous in most Zoom performances (although it may well be that TSMGO actually invented this particular convention) but it is other aspects which shine through. Technically impressive is when the murderers invert Clarence into the wine barrel and we see the drowning courtesy of a “malmsey-butt-cam”. The appearance of all the ghosts on the eve of the battle of Bosworth is also impressively managed with some inventive individual use of lighting and make up to create a consistent and (literally) haunting scene. Various makeshift swords, daggers and a particularly impressive halberd or two add urgency to the fight scenes and there is a cutaway to a fully rehearsed climactic duel between Richard and Richmond courtesy of fight gurus Yarit Dor and Enric Ortuno; this requires full suspension of disbelief but given that, they get away with it. There are also some splendid sound design elements from Adam Woodhams.
I’m not totally sure why Richard III has been singled out for award consideration though it’s undoubtedly a good representative example of the project’s entire work and came at a pivotal stage in development of the series. TSMGO will actually be back soon to perform Pericles – it isn’t in the First Folio so wasn’t included in the main run. I also hope they will be looking to dust off The Two Noble Kinsmen at some point. Meanwhile the whole series is still available and as #lockdown3 seems set to run for some time yet, why not start at the very beginning and marvel at the ingenuity that went into creating this pioneering project?
*My account of appearing in the production of Love’s Labour’s Lost can be found here
Richard III is available on TSMGO’s You Tube channel – click here
The rest of the weekly Shakespeare shows (and a handful of others) they produced are also available at the same link
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A full list of OnComm finalists can be found here