Proving a villain: the Bacchanals’ Richard III

Richard III, directed by David Lawrence. Bats Theatre, Wellington, until 31st January.

Stabbings, strangulation, child murder, an earl drowned in a barrel of wine, sword fights, dirty politics, and – naturally – one of the best baddies in the whole of literature: Shakespeare’s Richard III sets out how villainy needs to be done. The Bacchanals’ wonderfully rambunctious and satirical production is a delight. They manage to make the play accessible without patronizing their audience or smoothing off any of the script’s rough edges. This is a text-centred production – and the ‘keen encounter’ of wits on display makes that a pleasure in itself – as well as a physical and fun, almost farcical, performance. Those new, or intimidated, by Shakespeare will find plenty here to entertain them, while existing fans and readers will have their appreciation of the playscript deepened and enriched.

Shakespeare’s play explores the dynamics of power and politics at the top of society, in the factions angling for the throne and control in the England of the era of the Wars of the Roses. It follows Richard as he kills his way to the crown, working with ‘silken, sly, insinuating jacks’ when he needs to and dividing and conquering those in his way. It’s a play about process, not psychology – Richard tells us early on what he’s going to do, how, and why (he tells us he’s acting ‘like the formal Vice, iniquity’) and then the fun for us is in watching him make his way there. The conspiracies and ‘devilish plots’ proliferate.

The Bacchanals have great fun drawing parallels between all of this and contemporary New Zealand politics. ‘What a strange world we live in,’ their programme notes, ‘where criminals and liars and smiling villains can be somehow elected to office despite the overwhelming evidence against them, and no matter how many people you’ve threatened to kill you get a column in the Sunday Star-Times.’ Hilary Penwarden does a neat turn as a character whom ‘corrupting gold / Would tempt unto a close exploit of death’, and who looks uncannily like Judith Collins. None of these comparisons make too much sense when read too closely alongside the playscript, but no matter – Shakespeare himself was selective and opportunistic with historical material in his own presentation of Richard’s life. These gleeful visual jokes and anti-National images mix well together with Shakespeare’s rhetoric, and it’s fascinating to think about the connections in how politics works between eras and the differences in how power justifies itself in different times.

For over a dozen years now the Bacchanals have been putting on contemporary New Zealand plays of urgent political relevance and Renaissance, Shakespearean especially, plays from the canon. Theirs is an admirable, and leftist, project – theatre at prices cheap enough to be accessible to ordinary people; intellectually demanding works of ‘high’ culture shaken up and treated irreverantly to prize them out of the deadening hands of respectability and into living relation with culture as it is now. Shakespeare is great fun to think with and listen to, and the Bacchanals give us a Richard III full of energy, wit, and angry political humour.

Hats off to them – and make sure you get along.

Richard III runs at the refurbished Bats until 31st January. Tickets and more information available here.