WHEN Martin Dimery started to put his new musical play together, he could hardly have dreamed how bizarrely topical would be its theme of a leader, convinced of his own destiny, fighting for his survival against increasingly powerful forces.
That is not, I hasten to add, to compare our Prime Minister with King Richard III – but who could ignore the parallels of a man inexorably drawn towards his fate, by his own instincts, beliefs, self-interest and ultimately blind delusion? (Both also have a rather distant relationship with the truth).
Has history been cruelly unkind to the so-called Crookback, the Yorkist prince who succeeded his brother Edward to the throne, across a field of bodies, including the tragic Princes in the Tower?
Dimery, the artistic director of Frome Festival, of which this is one of the major events, wrote and directed the production, played in the atmospheric setting of the ECOS amphitheatre, beside the Merlin theatre. The company was drawn from the wealth of local acting and singing talent, in conjunction with Kairos Theatre Company. The lyrics were by Martin Dimery, and the music was composed by Dimery and David Hynde.
The scene opens in Richard’s tent, on the eve of the decisive Battle of Bosworth Field. We, the audience, know what is to happen on that bloody, muddy battle-ground. Richard, increasingly paranoid but still utterly convinced of his right to the crown, cannot believe that the upstart Tudor, the future King Henry VII, will defeat his troops, superior in number and (he thinks) loyal to their king.
As he tosses and turns, he is visited by some of the many people whose lives he has affected, generally with fatal results. Not all have been despatched by Richard personally to meet their maker – those mysteries remain part of the black legend of this last Yorkist king. Some still living (Anne Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort) and some dead (Henry VI, Buckingham), haunt the king’s sleepless night, with their bitter stories.
There is an enduring fascination with Richard III, one that has clearly captivated Martin Dimery, and this new play offers a different angle – and at the outset a more sympathetic one. But as the story (and the long night) progress, the mood darkens and the king seals his own fate.
There are occasional Shakespearean touches in the dialogue and often witty lyrics – not surprising, since the king is the subject of the most blackly funny of Shakespeare’s history plays. Perhaps the quote that best sums up Richard’s situation, as depicted in The Haunting of Richard III, is from Macbeth: “ I am in blood steeped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
This retelling of the oft-told story puts a lot of emphasis on the women. There is Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, ambitious for her children, but rightly fearful for their survival. Even more ambitious is Margaret Beaufort, ruthless mother of the future Henry VI (and thus grand-mother of Henry VIII and great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I).
And there is Richard’s own queen, Anne Neville. Did he ever really love her? This play suggests that he did, but in the end his paranoia thrusts aside his finer feelings and his urge to hang on to the crown leaves her as what we would call collateral damage.
Steve Middle, slightly bent and dragging a leg, has some demanding scenes – and songs – and conveys well the conflict in a man who wants to do the right thing, but increasingly loses sight of what that is.
Sarah Wingrove is impressive as his wife Anne, intelligent and not easily pushed around, but ultimately destroyed by the death of her only child. The other mothers, Elizabeth Woodville (Tracey Rawlins) and Margaret Beaufort (Leonie Macaslin) are similarly strongly drawn and well-acted.
Steve Waterfield sings powerfully and acts with conviction in the crucial role of Buckingham, the king-maker and for a long time Richard’s principal ally – another timely reminder that there is nothing new in political back-stabbing (it was just more bloody in the 15th century!)
Robin Ainslie-King, who was also responsible for the props and set design, brings real threat to the role of Catesby, Richard’s go-to man for dastardly deeds. He was one of the three in the notorious doggerel, “The Rat, the Cat and Lovell the Dog, ruleth all England under the Hog.” This rhyme*, pinned to the cathedral doors, enraged Richard. The ensuing search for the perpetrator gives Dimery an entertaining tavern scene.
The show has lots of interest and the basic premise, of the eve-of-battle mental reckoning, is convincing. But there is an air of work in progress. Not all the songs work and it is probably about half an hour too long – perhaps some cuts to the connecting narrative, the haunting scenes and some song reprises.
Pictured: Gloucester with his wife Anne Neville, and later as king and queen; Buckingham rouses the people to support Richard as king; the set against a beautiful evening sunset.
*There is a local connection. The Rat was Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the Hog was the king (his symbol was a wild boar). The rhyme was written by William Collingbourne, a Wiltshire landowner (the villages of Collingbourne Ducis and Collingbourne Kingston take their name from him). One of his descendants makes the historic Wiltshire Loaf cheese. Collingbourne was rewarded for his rhyme with the hideous traitor’s death (to be hanged, drawn and quartered).