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Richard 3: Villainy with a twist

Matthew Drummond
Online Editor

When the title character awakes with fright towards the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, haunted by those he’s had killed, it is Richard’s loneliness that most strikes Kate Mulvany. Throughout the first half of the play he often directly addresses the audience, gleefully boasting about his murderous plans and inviting them to egg him on. But in the second half the asides peter out, as if Richard begins to realise that his only friend is himself, and even he is not a good ally.  

    Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh
    What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
    Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I. 

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, but for Mulvany the way Richard woos the audience makes it feels like one of his most modern. “They [the audience] become his Facebook and his Twitter and his Instagram,” she says. “He’s bouncing everything off them constantly. I think gradually though as his tweets get the more nasty and selfish, his followers drop away until he finds himself completely alone in this massive network of nothingness.”

Richard’s wickedness is what makes the role so coveted. Mulvany (who appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, starred in Griffin Theatre’s well-received The Literati and has also written over 20 plays) experienced the thrill of malevolence when she played Lady Macbeth in 2012. “The moment you enter as Lady Macbeth everyone sees you as the greatest thing ever written,” she says. “It’s an incredible release to be allowed to be devilish, just for a change.”

But even Lady Macbeth – for all her lack of milk of human kindness – has nothing on Richard: a deformed hunchback who ruthlessly lies and manipulates his way to the throne, killing his brother, his two child nephews and then poisoning his wife.

His relationship with the audience is what makes the play especially electric. “It’s great to test an audience to see how far they’ll go with him before they go ‘actually, I’m out,’” Mulvany says. 

“The audience becomes Richard's Facebook and his Twitter and his Instagram.”

Kate Mulvany

A narcissistic bully who plays to the crowd might invite comparisons with US President Donald Trump – and the dangers of following the jester who becomes a king is another contemporary resonance that Mulvany sees in the play. But she’s keen to avoid it becoming too ‘Trumpy’. As powerful as that link might seem, it somehow seems to diminish the power of Shakespeare’s insight.

“I’m not going to get an orange toupee on,” Mulvany says. “Trump is just another example of many politicians we’ve seen before and it’s not just about politics. It’s about the human beings that we let into our lives. Even from school we follow those kids that are bullies, until we learn that the bully is not to be followed. It’s a lesson we learn and break and learn and break.”

The decision by Bell Shakespeare’s artistic director Peter Evans to cast Mulvany as Richard is doubly inspired. Most obviously, Mulvany is a woman. She intends to play Richard as a man. “I think there’s something interesting in watching a woman playing a man saying such misogynist things,” she says. “It puts you off kilter.”

Less obvious is something perhaps more profound. In 2013 a skeleton found under a carpark in Leicester, UK was conclusively identified as being that of the real Richard III and the curved shape of his spine was diagnosed as scoliosis. Mulvany has the same condition - a consequence of extreme levels of chemotherapy given to her as a three year old. It wiped out her cancer, but took with it the nerves and muscles on her lower left back. As a result her spine twists, leaving her in constant chronic pain. Playing Richard will allow Mulvany to play, for the first time in her career, a character who has the exact same physical abnormality as her. 

Mulvany, who spoke to Sydney Opera House just before rehearsals were due to start, says she’s not yet sure how she’ll deploy her scoliosis in the production.

“It’s strange because it’s something so common to me and something that I’ve hidden so much as a performer that it’s going to take a lot of, ironically, nerve to actually find that in the rehearsal room. But I have said to Pete and our movement director Nigel Poulton to go for it; light me and show me any way you like. Because I’m not afraid to show my scars and my quirks.”

Shakespeare exaggerated the real Richard III’s physical abnormality, making him ‘deformed, unfinished’ and a ‘poisonous bunch-backed toad’ so as to better characterise him as a villain. His villainy is directly attributed to Richard’s deformed body; “Since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard tells the audience in the soliloquy that opens the play, thus making him one of the many characters of stage and screen whose physical impairment drives their malevolence  – think of The Phantom of the Opera, the Elephant Man and Disney's Captain Hook.

It’s a vexed issue in our era of disability rights. Mulvany’s personal experience gives her a completely fresh take on the matter - she wonders whether Richard, like her, suffered chronic pain and if so whether it was this agony that drove him towards his awful decisions. “I can be pretty evil when I’m sore,” she jokes. 

But how does she feel uttering Shakespeare’s sharp words – describing herself to be ‘so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them’?

“I love those lines,” she says. “I don’t call myself those things but other people do. The amount of doctors surgeries that I have been to or conferences where I’ve been gotten up naked in front of people and they’ve poked me and said ‘this deformity and that deformity’. Deformity is not a word that I use, to me it’s my body,’ she says, adding she’s proud. “I wish they’d say ‘this pride of her’s here.”

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 is at Sydney Opera House from 25 February until 1 April

"I'm not afraid to show my scars and my quirks."

Kate Mulvany

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