A TALE of treachery, betrayal, bravery and defeat, Richard III is among Shakespeare’s best-loved histories.

Love or loathe the Bard’s re-casting of the heroic last king of the House of York as a scheming, ‘crookbacked’ villain, his creation has a delicious dark appeal. And an imaginative new production of Richard III, which comes to the Oxford Playhouse next week, portrays Richard, Duke of Gloucester as never seen before.

John Haidar directs Tom Mothersdale as Shakespeare’s most notorious and complex villain, in a co-production between Headlong, Alexandra Palace and Bristol Old Vic, in association with Oxford Playhouse, which is the Playhouse’s final co-production in celebration of its 80th year.

“It’s a study of one man’s ambition to be king, how that desire for power is refracted through his family and the country as a whole and how, ultimately, it tears the country apart,” says John.

“Though it’s about Richard, his psychosis is refracted through all the other characters, especially in this version. This is an ensemble piece where we are creating a broken family on stage. I’m not sure, even now, how to direct a state of the nation play, but I am increasingly confident about staging a play about a family in crisis. It’s just that this family in crisis is refracted through the whole country.”

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Tom says: “John and I are really interested in the character of Richard. Rather than just showing you his horrendous acts, we want to question why he does them. What has turned him into this – in the words of other people – monster?”

John adds: “I don’t see him as a monster. He’s trying to figure out what he is, but he’s been told his whole life he’s a monster.

“Maybe he’s decided to fulfill that role. He becomes this emotional extremist in the course of the play. He’s capable of these amazing moments of poetry, but also incredible violence, because that’s the only outlet he has.”

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John admits to having had Tom in mind for the role. “I’d seen quite a bit of Tom’s work on stage and had always felt the characters I’d seen him play were mercurial, shape-shifting figures,” he says. “They had this deep well of longing at their centre. I really wanted to bring that to Richard because I think there’s a well of vulnerability at the centre of the character that I don’t often see portrayed.”

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And how does Tom feel about being asked to play Richard?

“Initially I was worried,” he confesses. “Shakespeare frightens me. I’m not a massive fan; I don’t like it when it’s stuffy and feels like a museum piece. But then I read John’s version and thought it was pretty cool. So I said yes.”

Purists rest assured though. “It’s important to say I haven’t changed the Shakespearean text to my own text,” says John. “It’s been an architectural process, trying to find out how to tell the story most clearly and effectively in a way that feels intimate and streamlined.

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“I’ve tried not to reduce the play. The play is still the play. It’s what Shakespeare intended. But we’re approaching it from a different angle, looking at the same thing. Lots of people who know a lot more about Shakespeare than I do have read it and said it absolutely is the essence of the play. That’s great to hear because the last thing you want to do is put forward a version that isn’t doing justice to what is a magnificent piece of work.”

  • Richard III is at the Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday 7 to Saturday 11 May. Go to oxfordplayhouse.com