Richard III's bones won't upstage his theatre persona
John Bell as Shakespeare's Richard the Third. Photo: Andrew Taylor
The Australian actor who has three times inhabited Shakespeare's Richard III says he won't rush the deformed, evil character back onto the stage.
But John Bell says the setting for the next production of Shakespeare's tale of intrigue and treachery could quite easily be Canberra.
The discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, five centuries after his death, buried under a car park in England, has made international headlines.
The skeleton of Richard III is seen in a trench at the Grey Friars excavation site in Leicester, central England. Photo: University of Leicester
Bell said the discovery would not change the depiction of the character in the play.
"We'll go on playing the character as he's written," Bell said.
Richard might have given a bad rap in the play as a deformed, evil character revelling in his villainy - history takes a more nuanced view - but Bell said Shakespeare's "history" plays were not really history as we understand it.
Remains found underneath a car park last September at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester, which have been declared "beyond reasonable doubt" to be the long lost remains of England's King Richard III, missing for 500 years. Photo: University of Leicester
"They're morality plays - good versus evil," he said.
Richard was the last of the Plantagenet line, killed in battle by the forces of Henry Tudor, and Bell said there was "a degree of politics" in Shakespeare's depiction.
"The records of Richard III's reign were destroyed by the incoming regime so Shakespeare had no access to primary sources, just the propaganda the Tudors pumped out."
He said that a depiction of Richard as a good king would make for an inferior play.
"Richard III is one of the great characters in literature, a smiling, charming villain: it works so well."
Canberra actor and director Duncan Driver, whose doctorate was on Hamlet, directed a production of the play a couple of years ago for Everyman Theatre starring Duncan Ley as Richard.
In that production, Richard was dressed in white, symbolising the white rose of the House of York, but each time he was responsible for a death he was flecked with blood.
"By the end he was drenched from head to toe."
Driver found the discovery of the king's remains "fascinating" and said it seemed appropriate poetic justice for the play's Richard, at least, to wind up so ignobly. It had already captured the popular imagination.
"A lot of people are circulating something on the internet with Edmund Blackadder saying, 'Really, Baldrick? Under a car park? That is your cunning plan?"
Driver said Shakespeare's Richard was definitely a villain and a dramatic more than historical creation.
"He's based on the figure of Vice from the early morality plays, the embodiment of pure evil."
For Bell's most recent portrayal, set in 18th-century England, he consulted an osteopath and a doctor who diagnosed Richard's crooked back as scoliosis - a conclusion borne out by the recent discovery - and Bell had a costume made that reflected the condition.
"It helped me to feel the discomfort, to feel the pain he felt. It was an important way of getting into the character."
Bell Shakespeare's production of Henry 4, conflating two of the other history plays, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, is coming to Canberra later this month.
Bell said all 12 of the "history plays" were really morality plays, with the same issues arising again and again.
This Henry 4 is set in the world of Britain during the 2011 London riots and Bell said Richard III could be even more current.
"You could set it in the White House, Canberra, 10 Downing Street - you could set it right now in Canberra."
Not that he has any immediate plans to revisit it with his company.
"The Melbourne Theatre Company did it quite recently, Kevin Spacey came even more recently," he said.
"In three or four years it will be time to do it again. It's always a popular piece."
And would he give it a Canberra setting?
"It depends on who is Prime Minister!"
Henry 4 is on at the Canberra Theatre from February 23 to March 9. Bookings: 62752700.