Whatever the end of the year means to you, generally it means a few lazy days and grabbing some time for a bit of reading. Whether you’re preparing to soak up the sun in the southern hemisphere, or rug up warm in front of the fire (or frolic how you please somewhere in the middle) it’s always a good time for a new book!
Naturally, I have some recommendations for you!
Narrelle M Harris has a bumper year
If you’ve somehow missed the excellent year I’ve had, may I draw your attention not only to The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, a Holmes/Watson romance set in Australia in 1893, but also to Wilderness, the third of my sexy spy thrillers about Martine Dubois and Philip Marsden.
In addition, there are the many wonderful anthologies in which my work’s appeared this year: Intrepid Horizons, A Certain Persuasion (queer interpretations of Jane Austen), The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes stories Part V: Christmas Adventures (traditional Victorian era Holmes and Watson) and A Murmuring of Bees (queer Holmes/Watson romance and erotica). In the next few weeks, Clan Destine’s And Then… anthology will be joining them with my 1851 fantasy, “Virgin Soil”.
That’s enough variety to keep you going for a few weeks, but if you’ve already been a champion and supported my work throughtout the year, I can also recommend some other fantastic books.
Narrelle’s 2016 recommendations
GoodReads stats tell me that I read 84 books this year, so I was clearly reading as fast and hard as I was writing. So many good books too! Here are some of my favourites:
Romance and Erotica
Herotica Volume 1 by Kerry Greenwood. Full of delicious queer love stories throughout history.
Albert’s Wars by Stewart Jackel. A bittersweet wartime love story. I cried.
Definitely Naughty by Jo Leigh. Short, fast, fun, sexy read!
Thrive by Mary Borsellino. This is the review in which I sang songs of praise to this book.
Are you there, God? It is I, Robot by Tom Cho. Tom’s work, like Mary Borsellino’s, is always an absolutely brilliant, brain-opening treat.
Trucksong by Andrew Macrae. Sentient trucks. Post apocalyptic Australia. So Aussie. So gritty. So good.
Monstrous Little Voices: These five novellas set in and around Shakespeare’s plays and life were an early gem and utterly brilliant.
- Coral Bones by Foz Meadows;
- The Course of True Love by Kate Hearfield;
- The Unkindest Cut by Emma Newman;
- Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky; and
- On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes
Lady Helen and The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman. Regency-era demon hunters, deft and fast-paced with fabulous frocks, manners that are not always impeccable and sexual tension you could cut with a knife!
The Time of the Ghosts by Gillian Polack. I didn’t think anybody could make me find Canberra interesting, but I was mistaken. Gillian Pollack does it effortlessly with the intriguing and marvellous tale of three older women, their protege Kat and all the ghosts becoming corporeal and dangerous in the ACT.
Tansy Rayner Roberts’ delightful novellas Glass Slipper Scandal: A Castle Charming Story, Unmagical Boy Story: a Belladonna University novella and Kid Dark Against The Machine. This woman keeps writing winners.
Pin Drop by Roz Monette. Life on the street for a young woman in America. Realistic but hopeful, with a positive ending.
Fast Pitch by Tim Martin and J Creighton Brown. I don’t normally go for sports books. I really loved this one.
Thyla by Kate Gordon. Tasmanian YA. An amnesiac girl is found in the wilderness. As her memory slowly returns, we learn why Tessa is a bit unclear on modern technology and what’s really going on with some missing girls from the school she now attends. Loved this one. Looking to get my hands on the next, Vulpi.
Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla. Set in Sydney’s Chinatown, it’s crime in a transient Australian community and it’s fantastic.
Livia Day’s Cafe La Femme series: A Trifle Dead, Drowned Vanilla and The Blackmail Blend novella. Set in Hobart. Tasty, tasty crime! (Livia Day is another name for Tansy Rayner Roberts, just going to prove that everything she writes is perfect)
The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim. Another crime novel exploring more diverse sections of Australia’s community. The splash of paranormal with the astrological charts just adds piquancy to the fantastic whole.
Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson. I’m convinced. I’m now a committed Ricardian. What’s more, I think Henry Tudor is the one who did for the kids. Boo. Hiss.
Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanksi. Powerful and deeply moving.
Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex. Lucy breathes vitality and wry humour into this biography of a book.
Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries by Christopher Redmond is an incredibly useful book of the prominent, the famous, the influential and the infamous of the Victorian era. Handy if you’re writing Sherlockian fiction.
That’s probably enough to be getting on with!
Enjoy your reading, one and all, and I hope you have a relaxing break as we head into 2017, filled with excellent reading!
And please share your recommendations in the comments for holiday reading.
I reviewed the first two books of the Monstrous Little Voices series, Coral Bones by Foz Meadows and The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield, back in January when the 5 novella series began its publishing schedule.
The series has come out as a celebration on the 400th anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death. Each story is set in the worlds he created, borrowing characters and settings from different stories and exploring issues like identity, love, trust and fate.
The novellas have been universally brilliant.
I have just finished the final book of the series, On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes, and I’m delighted to report that it’s just as superb as the first two, and indeed the next two.
To quickly get us up to date, I reviewed 3 and 4 on Goodreads as follows:
The Unkindest Cut (#3) by Emma Newman
Another strong segment of the Monstrous Little Voices series, bringing in plot points and elements from the preceding two. Innocence and trust come to treachery, and prophesies prove tricksy as ever.
Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (#4) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This fourth novella of five in the Monstrous Little Voices series ramps up the drama, taking a host of characters from comedy romances – Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well – and swirling the darkness of Hecate and Macbeth into the mix. The wars touched on increasingly in the previous novellas come much closer to the surface, and events from the other stories have more weight here too.
Here we have shipwrecks, women disguised as men, powerful magicians, noble prisoners and untrustworthy companions. The language is beautifully wrought, the plot as complex as any by Shakespeare, but with a clear and satisfying resolution that leads towards the last book of the series. I can’t wait!
And lo! the last book came out, and I had to wait a little, though I didn’t like to, and here is my review of it.
On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes
I’ve not often been a fan of second person in fiction – the ‘you do this, you feel that’ format can feel a bit forced. But I have to say, Jonathan Barnes’s choice to use it here, putting you in the shoes and heart and mind of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is inspired.
We know relatively so much about Shakespeare you see, and if you love his work, you have a kind of relationship with him. So from the start, the reader is placed in a particular juxtaposition with how Anne (and how we) feel about Shakespeare, as well as how we feel about love, marriage, life and loss.
This final story introduces us to Anne and her husband William – the man who never left Stratford, who never went to the theatre, who never wrote all those plays we loved. It also introduces us to a multiverse – where our playwright Shakespeare exists in one reality, and the realities of where all the other Shakespeares that might have been also live.
Of course, all of this is learned through Anne’s eyes as she… as you… as we see our husband leave in the company of strange yet strangely familiar men, members of a mysterous Guild, to fight some war that is nebulous. Life is filled with foreboding portents, and our son Hamnet, who has not dreamed since the illness that nearly killed him, begins to have prophetic dreams.
Barnes’s use of ‘you’ is clear yet subtle. He dictates to us our feelings and our fears, but it is done with such delicacy, such care and such sorrow, that when the battle comes to our very door, I had tears in my eyes for Anne’s/Will’s/my/our great sacrifice.
The return to third person for the final chapter – the twelfth night – is completely in keeping with the plot and the denouement of the 11th night… so when a final reminder and reference to the recent past is made, I had another strong, emotional response.
On the Twelfth Night is a fine finale to a series of excellent novellas exploring humanity, love, and redemption. And these storeies all happen within the worlds made for us by William Shakespeare, the playwright commonly acknowledged as the man who helped us understand so much of the complexity of what it is to be human, which is the reason his plays have survived for 400 years beyond his death.
I really cannot recommend them highly enough.
Buy the stories individually
- The Course of True Love (Monstrous Little Voices Book 2) (Amazon)
- The Course of True Love (Abaddon Books)
- The Unkindest Cut (Monstrous Little Voices Book 3)
- The Unkindest Cut (Abaddon Books)
- Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (Monstrous Little Voices Book 4)
- Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (Abaddon Books)
Buy the collection
- Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare’s Fantasy World
- Monstrous Little Voices (Abaddon Books)
Read more about Monstrous Little Voices at Abaddon Books.
2016 marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and Abaddon Books is celebrating with the publication of five novellas set in the faerie worlds of Shakespeare, with characters both well-known and new.
The five interconnected stories are being published as e-books throughout the first quarter of the year, and will be released as a print volume.
I discovered this series because the first novella is by Foz Meadows, who announced the release of Coral Bones on social media, and I pounced.
So far, two of the novellas are out – and if this is how Monstrous Little Voices starts, the next three novellas are going to be fantastic.
Book 1: Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
Coral Bones leads the charge, telling the story of what happened to The Tempest‘s Miranda after marrying the first man she ever met and being taken to a foreign court.
Miranda is even more oppressed at court than she ever was on the island. Instead of being manipulated (and made to sleep and forget against her will) by her father, she is now neglected by Ferdinand and mocked by his court for her unworldliness. Fortunately, Ariel is still her friend.
Between flashbacks showing their relationship, and Miranda’s present escape towards Illyria in the company of Puck, Meadows explores concepts of identity: both those imposed by others’ expectations and the struggle to express one’s own often changing and even fluid sense of self.
Meadows’ command of language in this story is gorgeous. It has cadences of Shakespeare without ever feeling like pastiche or at all clumsy. There’s elegance and beauty, humour and heartbreak, throughout. The wider negotiations of faerie, and the eternal torrid clashes between Tatiana and Oberon inform the plot, but for once, Miranda gets to make her own choices.
It’s a splendid start to Monstrous Little Voices.
Book 2: The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield
If Coral Bones is a strong start, The Course of True Love takes the energy and pulls the series into an excellent second act. Here, the aging witch Pomona stumbles across a fairy garden and its glamoured prisoner: Vertumnus, the mortal Indian boy Tatiana raised and fought with Oberon over in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now grown to venerable adulthood.
With her loyalties pulled in several directions – towards Duke Orsino, towards Hecate and Tatiana, even towards Sycorax and Caliban – Pomona’s actions see her and Vertumnus caught at the crux of an impending war between Duke Orsino, urged on by his wife Viola (Twelfth Night), and the fairy king, Oberon. Naturally, Tatiana has a hand in it.
Like Meadows, Heartfield explores notions of identity, as well as personal integrity. Of course, where fairies are involved, the resolution is likely to be both terribly complex and really very simple, and the reader is as suprised as the characters by the charming and clever denoument.
Both of these novellas are striking, beautifully written and wonderfully constructed, giving us views of a combined Shakespearean world where the courts of Tatiana and Oberon interact with human affairs. Miranda and Pomona – and even fairy folk like Puck and Vertumnus – seek self-understanding, purpose, and a place to belong where they can be their whole selves.
In short, these stories carry on the work of William Shakespeare – telling us ways of being human, with flair, elegance, and wit.
I can’t wait for 5 February, and the release of the third book in the series.
Buy Coral Bones
Buy The Course of True Love
- The Course of True Love (Monstrous Little Voices Book 2) (Amazon)
- The Course of True Love (Abaddon Books)
Pre-order the other books in Monstrous Little Voices series
- The Unkindest Cut (Monstrous Little Voices Book 3) by Emma Newman, due 5 February
- Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (Monstrous Little Voices Book 4) by Adrian Tchaikovsky, due 19 February
On the Twelfth Night (Monstrous Little Voices Book 5) by Jonathan Barnes, due 4 March 2016
- Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare’s Fantasy World due out 8 March 2016.
Read more about Monstrous Little Voices at Abaddon Books.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those plays so dense with ideas that you can easily see a dozen of them and get a different experience each time. Should Hamlet be young? He’s still at university, after all. Ah, but the gravedigger says of Yorick, “this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years”, and Hamlet remembers the jester from when he was a boy – so he must be almost thirty, at least?
That’s a prosaic question among many. Is Hamlet mad, feigning madness or something in between? Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever understand their role or deserve their fate? Was Claudius merely a greedy, self-indulgent opportunist or a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard who was out to rob Hamlets Senior and Junior of the kingship from the start? How implicated is Gertrude and does Ophelia have any agency at all, when her death is reduced to her brother and her boyfriend having a graveyard pissing contest over who loved her more, when nobody loved her enough to care about her opinions or fate when she was alive?
I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, on stage and screen, adapted and in Shakespeare’s original texts (and there are a couple of different versions of those). I’ve seen them edited down, done with the whole shebang, performed in modern dress, in period dress, in mixed costuming, though not yet nude. (Give it time, though, give it time.)
All is by way of saying that I have a lot of Hamlets under my belt, and this production at the Barbican, directed with confidence and a grand vision by Lyndsey Turner, was one of the very best I’ve ever seen.
The production itself closed on 31 October and will in a week or two come to cinema screens as part of the National Theatre Live program. If you don’t want spoilers about the production or my musings on the text (which may still be spoilerific for some – after all, everyone sees it for the first time some time) you might want to bookmark this for later.
First up is the astonishing set, which reveals itself in stages and then becomes a canvas for the set and lighting design to splash the fate of Denmark upon it. The first thing we see, actually, is Hamlet sitting on the floor in front of a dropped flat. He’s listening to Nature Boy on a record player, going through possessions in old tea chests and experience a small, private moment of loss. In that small moment we meet a grieving son. Soon after, that curtain rises and we are greeted with the vast hall of a royal mansion: two storeys high with a massive staircase, ballustrades, great doors and almost cavernous. You wonder how on earth that space can be filled.
It’s a sudden shift from the individual to the wider world, and of course the royal hall is more than just the palace of Elsinore – that space is Denmark, bounded in a nutshell and the director and her cast have no trouble filling it at all. In face, after the banquet scene, the back of it opens up so that it become still larger yet! And never once is there a sense that the actors are swimming in emptiness (unless, of course, that is the point of the scene). Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet makes particularly good use of this ‘little Denmark’ – his energy in racing from point to point is beautifully contrasted each time he stops and becomes a still centre for thought and introspection.
At key points, the lighting paints decay on the walls – the something rotten in the state of Denmark clearly something emanating from the palace.
And that something, it is eventually proven, is Claudius himself. I’ve enjoyed Ciaran Hinds’ work immensely in the past – he combines fantastic gravitas (he was Julius Caesar in the Rome series) with very human flaws. I’ve seen so many versions of Claudius where he is a bit on the soft side, an apparently affable man who let ambition overtake his duty and now he can’t believe his luck that he got a kingdom and a deliciously saucy wife to boot. When the truth is uncovered at last, this kind of Claudius makes desperate plans to protect himself.
Hinds’ Claudius is a planmaker, all right, but he’s no weaker younger brother who took an oppportunity and ran with it. This Claudius’s true colours are pretty much black to the bone – genuinely dangerous, genuinely threatening and, as a result, a brilliantly dark and, for me, refreshing take on a character I thought was familiar. At the end of the first half of the play, the palace explodes with black confetti, as though Claudius’s determination to ensure Hamlet is killed is the bursting of a particularly nasty foulness – and it infects the whole set. The second half is a scorched Elsinore, a blackened battlefield of a Denmark, ruined long before Fortinbras arrives. This is a Denmark deeply infected by corruption from the top, and when Hamlet returns, apparently relieved of his almost feverish madness, it’s only to find everyone else fretful with rage and their own kind of fevered wildness.
Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is also a treat. The character never has much agency and is pushed around or ignored by pretty much everyone, even after she dies. This Ophelia is nervy, sweet but socially awkward, looking at the world through the filter of her camera. Strangely, although she seems to keep an arm’s length away from people with that intervening camera, it also means that she sees more than others do, too. Her mad scene is played to convey that extremely well, and it is only then that Claudius really pays attention to her – when she says something that indicates she knows what he’s done. Soon after this, when Gertrude realises what Ophelia has buried in her delirium-fed funeral for her murdered father, Ophelia’s distress and her imminent fate hit chillingly hard.
Then, of course, there’s Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Given the hype surrounding his casting and the speed with which tickets sold out for the run, a year in advance, it was always going to be a challenge for him to live up to the expectations.
Fortunately, he not only lived up to them, but exceeded them. His Hamlet is complex and moving, from that first moment we see him as a grieving son to his last breath of a man finally embracing the ‘felicity’ of escaping what is to him an malevolent world. In between, he is melancholy, funny, sly, furious, bemused, child-like, unreasonable, wounded, heartbroken and enraged. He uses every inch of the stage when it’s right to use it, and commands stillness when stillness best tells Hamlet’s tale. He has an incredible physicality and grace – whether clambering all over the banquet table for a soliloquy or waltzing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he accuses them of playing him like a pipe. With Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Cumberbatch wrings every conflict and every contradiction out of the role, and delivers a superbly textured, engaging, comedic and deeply tragic prince.
For all I sing his praises, the fact is he is supported by a truly excellent cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) who really do feel like they’ve known him from childhood; Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who personifies being the opposite in every way of Hamlet as a son; and a Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) who seems happy to turn a blind eye as long as she still has a nice frock. Karl Johnson even does a marvellous job at being an opposite of himself as both the Ghost and the Gravedigger – as grim and disturbing in the former as he is wickedly funny in the latter.
I am so familiar with this play, but so much of this production felt fresh, its approach highlighting aspects of character and text in new ways.Benedict Cumberbatch is part of an ensemble of excellence, from the whole cast and the director to every backdrop, every soundscape, every costume and every line. Lyndsey Turner and her team should be rightly proud of themselves for bringing their grand vision to life in ways still so emotionally direct and personal.
This may not be the definitive Hamlet – with a play this layered, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing – but it is a consummate Hamlet and well worth the seeing. Which I’m going to do again, in the National Theatre Live screening next week.
See more about the Barbican’s Hamlet:
Read my review of Richard III starring Martin Freeman (2014)
My very great thanks to Wendy C Fries who bought tickets for this production for me in 2014, on the off-chance I’d make it back to London in 2015. You’re a champion!
Stratford Upon Avon. Birthplace of the Bard. The village where William Shakespeare’s relatively humble origins lead some to believe (rather snobbily, I think) that a fellow with a fairly ordinary education could not possibly have written plays which still resonated with audiences 400 years later (as though all, or even the best, education happens in schoolrooms).
After several trips to the UK I finally made it to this English town, wanting to pay my respects to a writer who has lasted so long in our minds and imaginations, and whose explorations of the complex state of being human still have us talking today.
My concerns that Stratford would turn out to be a kind of DisneyShakespeareland were mostly unfounded – Stratford Upon Avon is not wall-to-wall Elizabethan Fun Park, although the township is obviously proud of their famous son and their heritage. The houses that are related to Shakespeare’s life – the house in which he was born; the one in which his daughter and her husband, a doctor, lived, and more – are well preserved, well signed and have guides in period costume to explain elements of everyday Tudor life.
On one window of the upstairs bedroom of Shakespeare’s birthplace, names have been scratched into glass (that wouldn’t even have been there in Shakespeare’s time) – including that of Henry Irving, the great Shakespearean actor of the 19th century. A picture of the panel in question is in the gallery below.
At Shakespeare’s birthplace, a roving performer even did soliloquies on request. He first delivered Richard III’s opening speech, but then he said he remembered Margaret’s speech, having once done the role, and he let me film it.
Of course shops abound, filled with Shakespearean tat (say hello to William Duckspeare, above) as well as higher quality souvenirs. But the architecure is genuinely interesting – especially to an Australian. All the Tudor-style stuff we see here is obviously fake, from the 1960s and 70s I think.
Among other things, I learned that the expression ‘sleep tight’ relates to the way mattresses once rested on a kind of rope sling, and that the ropes would have to be regularly tightened to make sure sleepers didn’t eventually sag onto the floor!
The Shakespeare Centre next to the house is wonderful too, full of art and audio and souvenirs-through-the-ages, including a display copy of a first folio open at the first page of The Tragedy of Richard III!
Naturally I took the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in action! Their Henry V was excellent, with some new takes on familiar scenes. Henry addressing the troops was also addressing us, and when he pleads for assistance with his French in wooing the princess, I couldn’t help feeling that a Globe Theatre audience would have thrown some suggestions his way.
Visiting Shakespeare’s grave was a fascinating moment. Buried in Trinity Church, a pretty little place near the river, dear old Will continues to attract pilgrims. I’m not necessarily a keen tourist of Places Famous People Have Been, but there was something about sitting in a pew a little way down from his grave and the plea to leave his bones undisturbed that is carved into the stone that was quietly moving.
I suppose that we all want to be remembered somehow – and Will has managed that more effectively than most. The thing is, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that any immortality we have, such as it is, is in our deeds. Our names may not be remembered at all, in fact, but the things we do, how we treated people, how we engaged with our world – those are things that have ripple effects, in ways large and small. Perhaps a word I speak today, or a sentence I write, will mean something to someone one day. Perhaps something in my actions or words will prompt someone to think in a new direction (hopefully a more positive one) and that slight change now will mean something to someone else down the line. I get feedback on my work sometimes that leads me to hope this is so, even in small ways.
And here lies a man whose wit, compassion, subtlety and poetry, expressed through his words, has meant a huge amount to generations of readers and audiences. His characters and stories have opened up minds to many different facets of being human – that villains can have their better moments; that heroes can be flawed. That we are all made up of multiple motivations, and perhaps that ‘nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’.
So Vale, Mr Shakespeare. You taught me a lot about writing, about humanity, and theatre and even myself.
Of course, while Freeman was a major draw for me (I’m a sucker for a Watson), I’m always up for a spot of Shakespeare, particularly with plays I’m not as familiar with. I’m sure I’ve seen this staged before, but couldn’t for the life of me tell you where or when. I’m most familiar with the splendid film starring Ian McKellen and featuring folks like Robert Downey Junior, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, NIgel Hawthorn and Maggie Smith.
This London production has a splendid ensemble cast of its own, including the marvellous Maggie Steed as a (literally) haunting Queen Margaret and Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth (mother of the hapless Princes in the Tower).
This production is set in the turbulent 1970s – the program notes refer to specific political turmoil in the UK that meant little to me, but the sense of revolution and political machinations doesn’t need a specific set of events to give the setting flavour. The set is both a blessing and a curse – the desks block out the stage into a series of barriers, which effectively convey the idea that everyone is at odds with and estranged from everyone else. Certainly, Richard’s plots and schemes wouldn’t have been half so effective if his targets had been at all unified, but their rivalries and old enmities make it easy for him to divide and conquer (and, of course, murder horribly on a regular basis).
While excellent at physically expressing this division, the choice to break up the scenery in this way can be a bit restrictive in how the space is used, with characters having to constantly allow for the obstacles. Still, even compartmentalised, the area is used well.
When I told people I was going to see Martin Freeman in Richard III, many expressed doubt. That nice Tim from The Office? The Hobbit? That lovely John Watson in Sherlock? A vicious, cold-blooded laughing, limping murderer? Really?
Oh yes, people. Really. Freeman has always had a great command of his physicality, and here he portrays Richard (slight hunch, slight limp, and a right arm he never uses for the duration) with all the wicked, gleeful viciousness that the role gives scope for. From that first speech, where Richard confesses his aims to commit the most terrible villainy to spite the world that has no place for him, Freeman’s portrayal of a calculating and intelligent Richard has an acidic, sharp edge to it, filled with energy and edginess There’s plenty of wicked humour too: it’s a miracle of writing, that such an utter bastard can speak to the audience through humour so that we laugh even as we deplore his cruelty.
And when Richard gains his crown and can afford to pull back on his destructive venom, what does he do? He plans the murders of his nephew and his wife and anyone else he thinks could threaten him. His brutality begins to look less like ambition and a lot more like pure spite, pure hatred and, let’s face it, a whole truckload of self-destructive self loathing as well.
For me, there have always been two key scenes in Richard III to make it work. There has to be some humanity in Richard. Not human kindness, no – but a sense that someone so vile is still very much a human being. That he is not some alien embodiment of hate, but a very human embodiment of that emotion. So, for me, there are two key scenes in which this is demonstrated.
The first is his confrontation with his mother, after he has despatched of his brothers yet still somehow hopes for some word of motherly love from her. From the script, I’ve always suspected that her dislike of him predates his sly and vicious plans as an adult – and that she has recoiled from him since he was a child; and that therefore, in terms of modern understanding of development, Richard is asa much as product of his treatment from birth as to his inate nature. Mackellen’s portrayal in the film captured this well, and Freeman manages that same unexpected sense of vulnerability here. Certainly, if she had offered Richard any kindness in this scene, I suspect it would have been spat on and thrown back in her face, but the glimpse of how he came to be this cruel king is, to me, an important insight to his motivations.
The second key scene in understanding Richard’s humanity is late in the second half, when he wakes from nightmares before the final battle and confesses to his own self that he does not love himself – “in fact I rather hate myself, for the evil that I have done” (to paraphrase). Again, Freeman conveys a human frailty and vulnerability here without letting us forget that Richard chose to be what he is. There is understanding here, without offering excuses.
In the scene where Richard has to be ‘persuaded’ to accept the crown, Freeman at last exaggerates the limp and the hunch, as though Richard is daring them all to make him their king, with all the physical deformities for which he has been mocked all his life. Once he accepts the kingship, he straightens his back and gets right into the business of demonstrating that he can be so much worse than anything he was ever accused of before in his life.
Interestingly, Richard’s death is the only one in the play that’s quick – perhaps because Richard has spent the entire play slowly dying, committing a horrible kind of suicide through spite. There’s a relief in it, when he drops like a stone, that all the suffering is finally done, his own as well as that he has inflicted on his lacerated and bloodied kingdom.
I’ve focused on Freeman’s performance here, but it is, as I said, a superb ensemble cast. Maggie Steed haunts the stage as the deposed Queen Margaret, laying curses and watching with genteel glee (at one stage sipping on a teacup full of, apparently, blood) as every curse comes to pass. In her way she’s as cruel as Richard, motivated by revenge. Gerald Kyd’s Catesby and Jo Stone-Fewings’ Buckingham are excellent foils for Richard’s acid wit, and Paul Leonard brings dignity to the role of Stanley, caught in the middle of his duty and his better sense. Lauren O’Neill’s tragic Lady Ann and McKee’s defiant Elizabeth are strong enough presences to hold the stage against such an intense (and intensely vicious) Richard.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction is crisp, keeping the pace snappy – except for those brilliantly excruciating murders (some of which usually happen off stage) which are drawn out with perfect timing. Murder is messy, and people on the whole die slowly and horribly – and it’s brutal and uncomfortable and unflinching. (Well, maybe the audience is flinching. I know I flinched, anyway.)
I could write for a long time about my thoughts on the story and the script, and how those ideas are teased out here, but that’s perhaps a whole other essay. What I conclude is this: Lloyd’s production of Richard III is excellent; fast, funny, brutal and very, very human.
If you can’t make it to London for the productions last days (it closes on 27 september) here are some clips of the cast talking about it, including Martin Freeman in his Richard III beard. He doesn’t look nearly so terrifying here as he does in the play.
Visit the Trafalgar Studios Richard III site. (If you go, be warned, these are some of the most uncomfortable theatre seats I’ve ever had to sit in. And I’ve sat in a lot of bloody uncomfortable theatre seats.)
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.