2 JUNE 1961, Page 19


Playing the Devil

By BAMBER GASCOIGNE Richard HI. (Stratford-upon- Avon.)—The Triple Alliance. (Royal Court.) IN recent years no great role has been associated so exclu- sively with one actor as Richard III with Olivier. Christopher Plummer has now Pat an end to this. His performance at Stratford of the 'bunch-backed toad' is so confident that he even takes no pains to avoid the obvious points of comparison. His make-up is almost identical with Olivier's and his voice is similar to that famous rasp, yet he makes the part entirely his own.

Richard describes himself as 'playing the devil.'

Olivier put the emphasis all on the 'devil'; with Plummer it is on the 'playing.' Instead of a dark monster, obsessed with his own ruthless ambition, We have at Stratford a cynical puppet-master Whose virtuoso manipulation of human beings is his only diversion in a world which scorns him. The change of emphasis is helpful to the play. Even though Olivier was surrounded, in his film version, by a princely heap of England's leading players, one still awaited impatiently the next appearance of Richard himself. The play became a character study set in a tangle of history. At Stratford it is a chronicle of a court in which a scorpion is•at large. Like this Richard, we are fascinated by the effect his cunning and dis- simulation can have on events. The spotlight is on the puppets as much as on their master, on the web no less than the spider.

Oddly enough Christopher Plummer shows here all the qualities which he so disastrously lacked as Benedick—clarity, quickness of wit, precision. These are also the virtues of the whole production. It is set by Jocelyn Herbert on plain, scrubbed boards with nothing but a huge stone pillar and a backdrop of steel mesh to shape the acting area, and William Gaskill deploys his actors in a manner in keeping with this simplicity. When Richard exhorts his troops before the battle, he confronts a thin straight line of five or six soldiers—a far more satisfactory conven- tion than that which pretends that only a small corner of a vast army has been able to crowd through the wings and on to the stage. The style of the production is reminiscent of Tony Richardson's The Changeling, also designed by Miss Herbert, earlier this year at the Royal Court—where both she and Mr. Gaskill have done most of their work. Perhaps the latest achievement of the Royal Court will turn out to be a distinctive style of classical production. Certainly this Richard III, Mr. Gaskill's debut at Stratford, is the first production there this season to fulfil the high expectations which sur- round Peter Hall's venture. One scene, however, is badly mismanaged.

This is the entrance of Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. Shakespeare awkwardly makes her give her first seven speeches as 'asides,' and Mr. Gaskill unwisely places her against the pillar, upstage of the action, where it seems that the other characters are deliberately ignoring her remarks. To complicate matters further there is a drastic clash of style between Edith Evans, as Margaret, and the rest of the cast; a clash, per- haps. between the old and the new. While they are performing a play, Dame Edith is imperi- ously giving a performance: while they are speaking in verse, she is speaking verse. Her isolation, as she moves from stance to stance, is like that of a visiting prima donna amongst a permanent opeta company. Admittedly Queen Margaret, the 'hateful, withered hag,' is a charac- ter set apart from the plot; admittedly at least half her lines are spent in grandiloquent curses or in 'asides': and admittedly she bears a heavy load of Shakespeare's early verse, with its formal patterning, whereas Richard's speeches are almost as fluent as Hamlet's: but it would help the play if the performance minimised these differences. Those who favour the grand style of acting may feel that the rest of the production is underplayed. But in any case the grand style (the hardest of all to make presentable as early as the first night) demands a perfection, a clarity of speech and movement, a freedom of arms and legs from entangling drapery, which this Queen Margaret was, last week, still lacking, The Triple Alliance, a Sunday night production at the Court, was at its best in its more Hier- onymus Bosch moments, with three inmates of a Cripples' Home discussing the eternal verities and being reminded by a nurse how lucky they were —they could see, smell, hear and even enjoy 'the pliability of flesh.' The play plunged disastrously when another cripple discovered the identity of his parents, who maimed him in the womb by their attempts at abortion. His subsequent meet- ing with his father, whom he murders, and with his mother, with whom he has been committing adultery, would have to be treated far more deeply if treated at all. (After all, Sophocles spared CEdipus such horrors.)Stylistically the play was no less muddled. At the start it was deriva- tive, with some success, from Samuel Beckett. But by the end--when the cripples had gone off with a darkly supernatural window-cleaner, who talked of Grace as he polished away to let the light through the panes and who offered them a hard job from which they would take out how- ever much they were prepared to put in—the play had become a parody of Eliot. The chief pleasure of the evening was Derek Newark's performance as the hunchback.