Theatre review: The Trial of Richard III

Novello Theatre, London, 29 April 2018
Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Hats off to the Shakespeare Schools Foundation, if only because its ambitions are mirrored by its huge success. It brings confidence and skills to young people of any ability and background through the study and performance of Shakespeare. It changes lives, sometimes dramatically, and it has attracted legal support through a series of theatrical trials every two years, the last being Hamlet. Unfortunately the prosecution so far has failed to secure a single conviction and so it proved again. You need to understand the curiously hybrid nature of this entertaining evening to appreciate why.

On one level, this was a semi-serious if simplified trial of a much maligned historical figure, with comic interludes, with both sides agreeing that our perception of Richard III was all Shakespeare’s fault. Great dramatist maybe, but he never let the true facts, such as they are, get in the way of a good story. So Richard was not in fact a hunchback, nor can we be sure that the young princes in the Tower were even killed in his reign. They posed no threat to his authority. They could not be successors. Disappeared, yes, but from the Tower that was more of a home to them than a prison. As for brother Clarence, of butt of Malmsey wine fame, no historical case again exists against Richard as his killer and he also was disqualified from being in the line of succession. Yet in this trial, the king faced three counts of murder, unseparated in the indictment and had we, as audience and jury, been sure of one, that would have been the verdict of the evening.

The other view of proceedings was that it was really a gloriously extended Monty Python sketch with a legal overlay, and really not to be taken too seriously. Neither description really does justice to the evening, but it was a formula that, at times, was not entirely easy to resolve. Purists might have liked more of the excellent all-round advocacy and less of the theatre of the absurd, with, for example, two killers of Clarence, jammed in the same witness box as runners of an online murder agency. But how could anyone resist the truly hilarious dead parrot cross examination by Ian Winter QC prosecuting, of the dead Clarence, miraculously appearing the worse for wear as a defence witness for Richard. Clarence was performed brilliantly by Tony Gardner and I was completely convulsed.

"How could anyone resist the truly hilarious dead parrot cross examination by Ian Winter QC prosecuting, of the dead Clarence, miraculously appearing the worse for wear as a defence witness for Richard"

At the outset, Hugh Dennis with much charm gave us comic warning of the evening, followed by the first of a series of vignettes by children infectiously part of the action. They were delightful and your critic was immensely impressed with the precision of their movements and surely some very proud directors in the wings. We all rose for Lady Justice Hallett, striking in full fig, and then presiding carefully over the proceedings. The court was untroubled subsequently by ancient hearsay, which was just as well as the Crown were a tad short of compelling witnesses. Jonathan Laidlaw QC, with much skill and self-acknowledged bias, opened the case and called the Duke of Buckingham, played by David Oakes as a convincing first witness. In cross examination, John Kelsey-Fry QC set about him astutely and at the end, brought home the bacon with a very persuasive final speech. No surprise there. Sallie Bennett-Jenkins QC was similarly entertaining in cross examination. Caleb Roberts coolly played the much wronged king and Kae Alexander was a forceful and deliberately truculent Lady Anne. Finally, after taking our verdict, Hugh Dennis sought the views of a few celebrities and the former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP, in particular, proved to be very entertaining.

Most of us voted for an acquittal. Quite right too, if you thought about the quality of the prosecution witnesses. Ultimately it succeeded as an ingenious and at times, extremely funny theatrical fundraiser. The cast did their best to score points off the professional advocates and that generally went down a treat with a well-disposed audience. Of course, the children stole the show.

Reviewer Nigel Pascoe QC, Pump Court Chambers and member of the Counsel Editorial Board

This is the fourth Trial of… fundraising event produced by the Shakespeare Schools Foundation; most recently Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) acquitted for murder in 2015 at the Noel Coward and Hamlet (John Heffernan) acquitted at the Wyndhams in 2016 for the murder of Polonius. See: www.shakespeareschools.org

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Nigel Pascoe QC

Nigel is a former leader of the Western Circuit, practises crime from Pump Court Chambers, and is a Master of Drama in the Inner Temple. He is on the editorial board of Counsel.