Richard, My Richard review – less naked villainy, more realpolitik | Theatre

If you wanted to invent a funny place to discover the skeleton of a king, you would find nowhere more comically deflating than a council car park. If the reputation of Richard III had been trashed by Shakespeare and warped by the history books, it took another knock when his remains were dug up next to Leicester’s social services department in 2012.

Historical novelist Philippa Gregory can see the funny side, but wants to correct the record. Her debut play is no hagiography, but it presents a view of a maligned king whose actions are less tyrannical than expedient. Enmeshed in the politics of his day, this Richard makes decisions based on judgment rather than sociopathic ambition. Yes, he is a hardbitten fighter but he has a belief in good governance that, in the midst of so much mayhem and murder, seems admirable.

Angry acting … Richard, My Richard. Photograph: Patch Dolan

Played by Kyle Rowe in Katie Posner’s robust production, he is given a chance to clear his name before being re-interred in Leicester Cathedral. In black leather trousers and severe haircut, Rowe is muscular and forthright but also canny and bright.

Repeatedly, he challenges the assumptions of History (Tom Kanji), an allegorical figure in the guise of a modern-day academic. “I was not darkness, I was not sin,” says Richard, denying some stories, explaining others and giving a central role to the women in his life.

But the framing device shows Gregory’s intentions too explicitly. To know who Richard really was is an academic question, not a dramatic dilemma. Despite Kanji’s exuberant performance, History is less a fully formed character than a way to fill in the facts.

The play is more gripping when it sets the revisionism aside and plunges into the scheming of a power-hungry elite as they shore up alliances, bump off rivals, groom successors and generally act like gangsters. When it comes to the disappearance of the princes in the tower, Richard is not even the most likely culprit.

If the jockeying for power encourages too much angry acting, the air of seriousness intensified by Beth Duke’s brooding score, Posner’s staging also has moments of playfulness and a swift pace to drive us towards the death of a rehabilitated king.

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