It’s rare that a play receives such hype and attention before its debut, and rarer still when it so deserves it.

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3, helmed by Artistic Director Peter Evans following the recent retirement of John Bell, could fairly be expected to take one of two broad directions. One, remain loyal to the most enduring piece of Tudor propaganda and, as with the latest production of the classic by the Royal Shakespeare Company, portray Richard as a singularly unredeemable, if charming villain. Two, do same, yet place him in the pantheon of Shakespeare’s tragic-stricken, more complex figures which he duly resembles but to which he was never afforded equivocation in more traditional stagings.

Bell aggressively pursues the latter course, and to astounding effect.

Kate Mulvany’s expert turn as Richard portrays all the nuances of the character that have come to characterize some modern interpretations to the extent that she carries off a fundamentally divergent version of the play’s final scene, replete with a plea to conscience that will more invoke memories of Shakespeare’s Shylock than a character such as Iago to whom Richard would more customarily be compared. Her leaps and frets about the stage, duly grimacing with a supremely sycophantic if conversely self-confident hauteur that harbours all of Richard’s gruesome and comedic appeal, even manage to steal the show when the entire ensemble are belting out a song only metres away.

The cast, best among them a very stirring Sandy Gore who occupies a regrettably short stretch of dialogue as Queen Margaret, notably spend the length of the play on stage, serving as background animation for much of the action. Ably deployed to reflect the machinations in the foreground and at times markedly silent in the face of the goings-on, their presence and movements throughout best emphasise the duplicitous nature of so many of the characters in the play’s events and hence Daedalian nature of Richard’s character implicit in more nuanced and engaging productions yet understandably absent from many stagings that would have taken place in centuries past.

The superbly realised aristocratic setting plays well into the frivolous and tempestuous personalities that characterize the royal court, though the nebulous use of a dumbwaiter and inexplicable addition of a very anachronistic set of swords late in the piece somewhat mar the otherwise engrossing set design.

Mulvany’s show through and through and a thoroughly captivating one at that, Bell’s Richard 3 manages to still build on an icon of theatre here very much unstuck from past retellings.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5 

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 is now playing at the Sydney Opera House

On Artshub