The mortal of the monster

The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 21 – June 11

William Shakespeare’s most famous historical play “Richard III” is a classic of the stage, revered by historians and Shakespeare purists alike and recognisable by the endurance of its protagonist’s valiant declarations. So when Naomi Price begins “The Tragedy of King Richard III” with the word ‘Now’, audiences may assume they know where things are going.

While the work does include some sections of Shakespearean dialogue, its opening lines are not authentic to the Bard’s iconic depiction of England’s last warrior king. But what does authentic mean anyway? This is, as Price implores, an imaginative experience. The raised rectangular centre stage needs to be reimagined as the municipal carpark in Leicester, under which the villainous monarch’s skeleton was discovered in August 2012. And who says that our reviled regard for him is deserved because, as Price surmises, nobody knows history due to stories’ silences, gaps and biases. And with this, the show’s title assumes meaning anew.


This is not Shakespeare’s depiction of King Richard III’s Machiavellian rise to power and short reign (for a mere two years, two months in the 1480s) as a “tyrant rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d”. Rather the show sits in the divide of what Shakespeare wrote and who Richard actually was. And from the outset its creative choices show that there is a moral behind the monster. Rather than allowing the character to be defined by the lead actor’s physicality, there is no hunch or leg encased in a calliper splint like in Kevin Spacey’s realisation at London’s Old Vic. Rather, there is just an early visual impression of the deformity through clever use of shadow as projection of his body’s shape.


Intent on bringing the narrative’s players out of the shadows, “The Tragedy of King Richard III” finds new depth in its characters. As Richard (a role shared with Peter Rowland), Atticus Robb is appropriately initially hesitant but after a while arrogant in his quest for the throne, yet so sympathetic is his portrayal when he unleashes his furious wrath in a standout monologue, that it is met with a whoop of support from invested audience members. His brilliance is made all the more impressive by the fact that this represents the young Brisbane actor’s (he was born in 2002) first profession stage performance.


Although the fearlessly talented Atticus dominates the stage, this is far from a one-man show. The cast is excellence, as expected. Particularly as Richard (and England)’s Queen, Anne Neville, Amy Ingram confettis the stage with sass, bringing many of the show’s biggest laughs in articulation of her modern teenage sensibilities in initial interaction with a young Richard.


Another silence filled in realisation of the show’s sometimes feminist discourse, is that of Margaret of Anjou, another English Queen, the wife of King Henry VI, whose husband was killed by Richard. Helen Howard gives a powerful, unrelenting performance, vehement in her passion but also cement of an angry feminist stereotype.


Also commanding in her performance is Naomi Price, particularly as the show’s ringmaster of sorts, engaging audience members in her collective self-referential proclamations and reflections, and later as incantation of Queen Elizabeth 1st (granddaughter of Henry Tudor, Richard’s killer) in illustration of our proximity to the problem. And having Price in the cast allows for the wonderful inclusion of live musical numbers. Whether in Whitney Houston mode popping out soundtrack to a disco-balled dance off between the young Richard and Anne or belting in exploration of the nature of power in ‘No Church in the Wild’, she more than delivers vocally, adding another layer to the already intricate story.

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Todd Macdonald also shines with a superb performance, firstly as the father Richard barely knew and then later as Master Shakespeare at the Globe theatre, revelling in the power of his creative realisation of Richard III. His embodiment of the Bard delighting in his dramatic powers is energetic and invigorating as he leaps about with jester-like frivolity, drawing the audience into his verve. Then things turn darker as he morphs into the monster who created the monster, envisaging the king as a sinister comic performer just four coffins away from the throne.


The fourth wall breaks in these scenes, indeed throughout the entire show, are not just for comic effect but add to the drama of the piece, enticing audience consideration of its core questions. And when Pacharo Mzembe and Robb discuss the representation of murder on stage, as themselves not their characters, it takes the audience to an intimate and affecting place.


The technically ambitious design is captivating in its realisation, full of powerful visual imagery thanks to Jason Glenwright’s smooth lighting design. The stage is filled with blood and water in nightly ruin of its stunning costumes. This is physical theatre and dramatic movement at its best courtesy of Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton.


And when Mzembe raises sword in final duel in a rainy Battle of Bosworth Field, it is an evocative experience. While the show is filled with bloody mayhem, however, its presentation of the violence and discomfort is deliberately desensitised, contrasting, for example, impression of animal torture against bubbly teen talk of Euro Disney in comment perhaps upon modern world sensibilities.


While feasibly more enduring than the historical character, Shakespeare’s ill-famed Richard III is a fictional realisation, motivated by a playwright championing the King’s heroic vanquisher, Henry VII, as founder of the new Tudor dynasty which took England from the Middle Ages into our modern world of grim fascination. In challenging this, co-writers Daniel Evans (Winner – Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2014/2015 for Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and Marcel Dorney (Winner – Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2010/2011) provide a bold play packed full of stimulating ideas about how bad history often makes for the best stories. In lesser hands this notion could have been lost to subtly, but under Director Daniel Evans, “The Tragedy of King Richard III” emerges as a first-class theatre experience that exposes the truth of the statement that you don’t know what you don’t know.

While new work is always exciting, the appeal of this work is so much more than just its novelty. Its ideas are so invigorating that they almost demand a second viewing to fully grapple with the show’s unexpected provocations. It has been said that the best indicator of a show’s calibre is if a reviewer will return independently to see it again; I’m planning my next visit now.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Ringside in the Roundhouse

Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 5 – 26

Perhaps never has there been a show more suitable for La Boite’s unique theatre in the round staging than “Prizefighter”, a new Australian work which sees the Roundhouse Theatre transformed into authentic boxing ring, complete with Vegas razzle dazzle spectacle of ushers acting as ring card girls, holding over-heard oversized cards bearing the seating bank numbers, an assortment of training routines happening before the audience’s eyes and a pumping pre-show soundtrack to set the scene and invigorate the crowd.

Far from the MGM Grand, however, the setting is the mythical Luke’s Gym in West End. After four years of training at the gym, rising star and refugee Isa, a talented young Congolese boxer is preparing for the most important fight of his life. Undefeated with 15 fights and 12 knockouts, he has fists of iron but haunting demons, explored through between-round flashbacks to the violence of his early life in The Democratic Republic of Congo where he was orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier.


While not linear in chronology, the story is not a challenge to follow as it transcends time and location, thanks to its cleverly crafted script (and debut work) by former Congolese refugee Future D. Fidel, with arcs and revisits to notions of killing and victory tempered by the universal humour of uneasy flirtation and brotherly banter. Indeed, despite its weighty themes, this is an accessible production thanks to its use of boxing (authentically choreographed down to the finest of details thanks to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) as a metaphor for Isla’s journey through trauma.


The story is brought to provocative life by a versatile all-Brisbane cast who portray all range of character role with nuanced commitment. As Isa, Pacharo Mzembe brings sensitivity to the text, always remaining on the right side of the empathy/sympathy tightrope. While the ever-feisty Margi Brown-Ash is a little like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill in the “Rocky” movies (the extent of my boxing knowledge), intense in demeanour and faith in Isa as she urges him to get his head right and focus on his dream.

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This is a show that pack a lot of punch (#punintended) into its hour long running time. As characters become casualties of the brutality of the volatile Congolese war, it is, at times, a highly charged emotional experience, with many emerging from the theatre wrenched by the extremities that only human tragedy can invoke. Music and David Walters’ lighting choices are central in establishing the mood and the pace of the journey, taking the audience through ebbs and flows of a narrative that requires both vibrant sounds capes and silences to speak volumes. And optikal bloc’s exciting projected imagery is essential in the audience immersement into the hype of a prize fight event.

As recent events have shown, it is far easier to condemn groups of people when they are given no human face. And while only inspired by the playwright’s own story of fleeing the war torn country, “Prize Fighter” presents Australian audiences with a confronting story that is clearly grounded in a experience that is achingly true for so many. As such, “Prize Fighter” is an important piece of theatre, worthy of inclusion as one of the headliners of the Brisbane Festival as part of its Congo Connection series. To bring stories such as this from the margins into the mainstream is one of theatre’s great privileges and while it may not exactly be a show to ‘enjoy’ as much as appreciate, its profoundness means it is definitely one to be seen.

The man on the mountaintop

The Mountaintop (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, Playhouse

February 22 – March 16

The premise of “The Mountaintop” is simple: on the eve of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, he interacts with Camae, a feisty first-day-on-the-job maid at the Lorraine Motel, who is sent to Room 306 with his coffee and newspaper. We all presume to know the man who was Martin Luther King Jrn, but who exactly is this Camae? And why does she know all that she does? The answers are quite unexpected, revealed as the play moves from absorbing realism to heightened theatricality.

Like many people, I’ve done the Memphis pilgrimage to all things Graceland and Civil Rights, including the museum that was once the Lorraine Hotel, and having seen the room in which this play is set, appreciate the authenticity of the set design. This, however, is where accuracy ends, for this is not a historical re-enactment, but a warts and all reflection on the life of an inspirational leader.

King is presented as a flawed man rather than a historical figure. Having returned to his motel room on a stormy night, having just delivered his inspirational, yet ominous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Memphis Mason Temple, in support of a sanitation workers’ strike, he is tired, disillusioned, a little paranoid and quite concerned about threats on his life. And Pacharo Mzembe’s humble portrayal is a fittingly grounded one of a mortal man, ordinary in his smelly feet, chain smoking and cheeky extra-marital flirtations, yet burdened by the lofty expectations of those who seek his moral guidance.

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Candy Bowers eases into the role of Camae, just as the audience adjusts to the nuances of the distinctive Memphis accent with which she schools the Doctor (“I don’t need a PHD to give you knowledge” she says.) Her charismatic performance is a highlight, with her Southern sass sparking the drama to the point that it sometimes reduces the impact of Mzembe’s down-to-earth portrayal.

Camae is bold and brash as she confronts King with arguments counter to his central ideals of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.  And it is here where the script truly shines, with lively language, witty dialogue and intelligent historical references, such as to Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. Unfortunately, this lures audience members into anticipation of a naturalistic production, before undermining them with a sudden, uncomfortable shift in style from the realistic to the fanciful.

While the deliberate subversion of audience expectations initially fosters an alienating experience, this is, in part, compensated by the drama of King’s struggle in the latter part of the play as he faces his own morality in some poignant scenes, where he is assured that his men will know what to do. This reassurance is majestically achieved through the clairvoyant gift of the final scenes. Bowers, accompanied by a rousing montage of footage depicting civil rights movement through to the present day, raps about the baton being passed on, as the depth of the Playhouse stage is majestically revealed. The projections by media designers optikal bloc are technically impressive and powerful in message, allowing the ultimately uplifting theme of the work to resonate, particularly in a nation such as ours, with its own history of oppression.

Although it is a story of just two characters, set in one room, “The Mountaintop” has a lot of things going on within its 90 minute (no intermission) running time. And this confusion aside, it is an intelligent, energetic, poetic and profound play, though just not as simple as you might be expecting.


Photo 1 c/o – Queensland Theatre Company