Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 33, Number 10. 8 July, 1970
The worst thing that can happen to an actor attempting to play Richard III, is to be faced by an audience who has seen Laurence Olivier in the role. Whether one agreed with it or not becomes immaterial against the sheer magnetism of Olivier's performance. I can recall no finer moment in the theatre than his first entrance. Prayer book in hand, he walked down the deep set in the St. James Theatre, stretching the silence before his opening "Now is the winter of our discontent" to an almost unbearable length. The nonchalant, almost mischievously happy, tossing of the prayer book over his head before he spoke set the whole tone of the performance. It seemed to suggest that if Shakespeare wanted a single-minded study of evil, he would get it. Everything, including the kitchen cess-pool was thrown in. The result was gay, witty, vile, terrifying, and unremitting in its headlong drive. One could not help thinking, even then, that any actor following him in the role could call on very few tricks that Olivier himself had not used.
Matthew O'Sullivan takes a novel approach that had not occurred to me. He makes him a bore. Rarely have I seen a performance that used so many techniques of staging, timing, movement and posture to so little effect. For the timing is excellent, and physically he manages very well to convey the impression that his body is a distortion, and an echo of his warped ambition. The voice is a good one, although I can only come back to my favourite theme, that it is a 'radio voice'. God forbid that I should want a return to 'face-acting', but, like Archie Rice in Osborne's The Entertainer, MR O'Sullivan seems completely dead behind the eyes. Three hours of po-faced acting (relieved occasionally by a planted grimace) is not my idea of fun.
What makes the three hours pass fairly quickly, is the meticulously outlined production. Here, unlike Philip Mann's MacBeth, the actors have not been subordinated towards the general thrust of the production. Both are more in tune here, and we are, perhaps because of this, more readily able to forgive weaknesses in some of the minor roles.
This production should not, of course, have been staged at Unity Theatre. It has too much energy, too great a sweep for the confines of Unity's shoe-box theatre. The set, a strongly-built one, had a set of stairs on either side of the stage leading directly upstage of a platform, with a sort of inner stage (rather cramped) on the ground level. The costumes, which were beautifully attuned to the production and well designed, also suffered from the proximity of the audience. Jeans, dyed a sort of dun colour to give them texture, failed to take on the anticipated effect and remained what they were, dyed jeans.
This was a pity, for this is a very good production, that cries out for the kind of treatment that any self-respecting city should be able to give it. Instead we are too aware of the mechanics of the production and we are rarely swept up in the action. This was most vividly borne out in the final fight-scenes, which are surely the most dangerous ever staged in Wellington. I am putting money on the hunch that before this review appears, someone will have done either an actor or a member of the audience some sort of grievous harm. These moments became highlights of the production but, of course, for quite the wrong reasons The entire audience, I am sure, were in a complete panic worrying about the safety of the friends and relatives and the odd critic or two.
Very few theatre groups in Wellington could boast an opening night that was so smooth, so confident, so free of the usual tentative qualities we are accustomed to. Down to the tiniest roles, and here I refer to the utterly charming children, the cast exuded confidence. A joy indeed to hear the youngsters, John Lowe, Steven Bowen, Lyn Fletcher and, particularly, David Gottlieb saying their lines as if they actually understood every word of them.
I expect, more than anything else, the production is noteworthy for its intelligence. In fact, the only irritation I felt was with the music and sound effects. Ian McDonald uses a confusing mixture of styles, from some rather badly recorded—and played—trumpet calls, which, at least, echo something of the period, to a rather crotchety-sounding set of battle noises, which reminded me vividly of the sort of let's play-with-the-tape-recorder sounds that usually accompany home movies. In fact, I was certain I detected the sounds of a very merry grog party, but I may have been confused by the sounds floating down from upstairs.
I would suggest, too, to future sound operators, that they place their speakers at the back of the stage, where the sound would at least appear to belong to the production, rather than in the somewhat divorced situation of out front.
If I can re-emphasise how good I think the production was, then I can go on to be candid about the acting. In no particular order, I find the performances that stand out in my mind included Michael Haigh (as Buckingham) who knew exactly what he was going to do and did it with style. His was a slightly effete Buckingham whose superciliousness suggested he had been caught slumming. He avoided the trap of becoming mannered, a style that has pervaded Shakespearean production for too long, and several of those on stage in using such a style, only succeeded in being 'camp'. Even Mr O'Sullivan fell into the trap now and then of tossing off lines to the audience as if both they and he were privy to some giggle-making send-up. An actor of his ability doesn't need to court laughs in such a blatant manner.
I like David Archer's acting. I always have. He reads his lines well, he underplays, and yet still manages to secure our total attention while he is on stage. Jeff Rowe managed the impossible by making Clarence and Tyrell one and the same character. His conversational style does not sit well in a Shakespearean play, although he would have some way to go to match Jeremy Melser's chatty, come-and-look-at-my-pot-plants approach. Jacquelin Jones, as Queen Elizabeth, was easily the best of the women. Here was a woman who was believably royal, was genuinely tortured by the tragic events that had overtaken her, and was capable of delivering her lines as if they had been written for her. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the other women, for they were all, at worst, capable, and at best, participants in some of the best scenes in the production. Beautiful, blonde Jennifer Compton as Lady Anne was somewhat lightweight at first, although managing a subtle blend of revulsion and attraction in her scene with Richard over Clarence's body. Lilian Enting and Nola Webb as, respectively, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, looked well, moved badly, and delivered their lines as if they were using a little-understood foreign language. Of the minor roles, William Juliff as King Edward IV was surprisingly good—surprisingly, for if one has seen this attention-riveting actor acting as often as I have, you would have thought that this right-royal stuff to be outside his range; for Max Bollinger, the role of the Archbishop was beyond his grasp, and the picture of him sitting, in full regalia, on the set of steps was nothing short of ridiculous—he looked like an ex-boxer who had somehow been unwillingly conned into attending a drag-ball; Peter Sim, doubling as the First Murderer, he was slightly absurd. Those from the University's MacBeth should form a club made up of the world's most unlikely and preposterous murderers.
What made, then, this production stand out? Its respect for the text, for one thing, and its intelligent, non-gimmicky use of it, for another; the costumes of Peter Coates (his set was less successful, having no sense of place, shoddy in its use of colour at such close range, and rather limiting in its usefulness) were admirable and, for the most part, were worn well—no mean achievement; the sheer competence of Matthew O'Sullivan's Richard (again, no mean achievement). And, above all, the sense of unity that he, with his artistic adviser, Ralph McAllister, has managed to achieve and project. It is a pleasure to record that the ever-present, usually non-speaking parts were given the same detail by the actors, and I particularly refer to Messrs. Dennis, Chesterman and Topp, as that given by those in the more rewarding roles. Unity Theatre, more than any other drama group, seems to take to heart the hoary old maxim, that there are no small parts, only small actors.