Red Rose Chain channel Quentin Tarantino for Richard III at The Avenue theatre, Ipswich
- Credit: Archant
When a morgue trolley is your most important prop, you know there’s going to be bloodshed. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage goes behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain’s production of Richard III and finds out about the youth theatre’s £43,000 grant to explore the Black Shuck myth.
Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do Shakespeare, but if he did it’d probably look a lot like this. There’s even a real morgue trolley to wheel Richard III’s departed characters off stage.
“It’s a really strange thing to see every day when you walk into the room,” says Rachael McCormick.
“One of my characters and one of Kirsty’s characters will at some point be lying on it which is a bit of a grim thought but I think it’s going to have a brilliant impact when that’s wheeled onto the stage. That’s weird, bizarre, cool and pretty close to the bone. I have a pretty good death as one of my characters so that’s good.”
There are plenty of good deaths to go round in artistic director Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of The Bard’s take on King Richard III’s Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign.
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“There’s a lethal injection in the show,” says the company’s community director Kirsty Thorpe.
“For a random audience member,” jokes Ed Day.
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“I get drowned in a bucket,” chirps in McCormick. “We’re trying to make it realistic. We’re not skimming over these things, we’re really going for it which is good. There’s a very bloody bit in the first half as well.”
Thorpe’s really looking forward to delivering Buckingham’s last words on Earth from a mortician’s table while strapped down having the aforementioned injection.
“I’m cranked up, it might turn a little bit Silence of the Lambs,” she laughs. “The deaths are contemporary as well, which I think will be really good. They’re not trad in any way I think they’re really relevant.
“There’s not a lot of people left at the end. It’s really similar to how Tarantino will check off people. You wouldn’t want to leave Richard in charge of your Christmas party, he’s someone on a mission just to slay. And of course Lawrence (Russell, playing said king) is wearing an all in one yellow jumpsuit.”
Given his turn as Drew Barrymore in a Scream-inspired promotional video for the show - running at The Avenue theatre until June 4 - I’m not sure she’s joking.
“It’s like ‘phwoar, pretty crazy first half’. You’ve got so many people dying and then somehow there are still loads of characters in the second half,” he laughs.
Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, it’s a story of murder, jealousy, intrigue, treason and spine-chilling suspense mixed with seduction and Red Rose Chain’s trademark inventiveness.
“It’s got lots of jolly bits in it. There’s a lot of situational comedy, it’s brilliant for that. There are so many opportunities for comedy and elements of dark comedy which is very popular now,” adds Day. “The history plays are often a bit more sombre but this is like a crazy satirical history piece.”
All agree that even in the darkest moments, you find humour to survive; something Shakespeare uses to great effect here.
“There are so many bits which seem really cool... Two murderers who comically don’t want to do the murder... It’s wonderful, the humanity of it; it’s suddenly relatable and it’s like ‘oh God they’re just normal people and they’re killing this person and they’re panicking’,” he adds.
Thorpe, who says you don’t need to know a lot about the real King Richard III or the play to enjoy this take, thinks audiences will love this accessible, physical, direct version featuring a cast of just four.
“It’s an amazing play and I think there’s things in it for everybody really, especially in our production. It’s a really fresh and cool adaptation, which is very much our own and I think people are going to be impressed.
“We can’t help but find something to laugh at, just a little bit of comic relief and that transfers to the characters. We were in absolute bits yesterday all over a drum. And rightly so, it’s a very funny drum section,” she laughs.
A brief(ish) diversion into the developing, albeit niche, field of drumography later, Russell explains he can’t wait to make the audience complicit in Richard’s journey.
“From being slightly unconfident in himself and then growing in confidence by realising what he can do with people. Then getting to be king, having a little bit of madness set in and seeing that slowly unravel; then complete fear at the end, anguish and getting killed. I think that’s going to be great,” he says, sparking laughter throughout the room, dressed in a very bureaucratic, 1950s, cold war style.
“Also the relationship with the audience because it will be really fun to try to make them complicit with everything that’s going on by just being nice to them and drawing them in; making them like this guy who’s doing all these things.”
Is he getting a hump?
“No, we’re getting on very well,” jokes Thorpe before Russell, getting accustomed to a prop whip as he talks, prompting more jokes, admits there will some sort of augmentation.
Juxtaposing the ridiculous with the serious and macabre is kind of Carrick’s thing. She’s not into the notion you’ve got comedies over here and tragedies over there, preferring the way they mesh together.
“We did King Lear (featuring Day as the titular character) which everyone talks about constantly, its amazing how many people mention it. Some people think drama’s all about ‘this is a serious scene, oh we’ve got to take this seriously, you couldn’t possibly be funny’. Everything is funny, there’s humour in even the most macabre, darkest things,” she says.
“What makes us into human beings is how we deal with adversity. On the worst days of my life there’s always been things I’ve laughed at. I’ve always found that really interesting and I like putting that into shows - and I think Shakespeare’s really into that too.
“Somebody said the other day ‘oh my friends won’t come to it because they say you’ll make it funny and it’s not a funny play’. I say you’re wrong, it is a funny play and it’s intended to be funny by Shakespeare. Somehow the idea that comedy is less than tragedy, that it’s less important and less about humanity and less about what’s intrinsic to our lives - I completely challenge that. I think all the great tragedies have got hilarious potential and that doesn’t mean that you’re pastiching it or taking the p*** out of it. That’s at the core of what the play is in places about.”
“There’s nothing worse than you get famous speeches and people do it and they’re like ‘oh I couldn’t possibly step outside the bounds of normality, this is how it’s done.’ There are always loads of comic lines, really ridiculous things and you’ve just got to play that as much as you play everything else.”
Carrick remembers watching Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet.
“It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, the most hilarious performance and the entire theatre was just cracking up. It was the most moving thing I’ve ever seen too, we were in pieces. There’s a scene with him and his mum where he’d been through all this... It was just so desperate, so awful, so on edge and so kind of wrong and weird. Then, at the end he just went ‘goodnight mother’. The way he said it, as if were any ordinary day, literally brought the house down. I was really young and it was an amazing lesson that tragedy is funny.”
All four will return to the world of Shakespeare this summer with their theatre in the forest production of The Tempest, running July 26-August 28 at Jimmy’s Farm.
Meanwhile, Red Rose Chain’s youth theatre has been awarded a £43,000 grant via the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Young Roots programme.
Members, who have varying levels of needs, including some with profound disabilities, will work together to explore and interpret the famous Suffolk superstition of the Black Shuck - the ghostly dog said to roam the coastline and countryside.
The project will comprise a theatre production at The Avenue, film and installation over the period of a year.
The youngsters are extremely excited to explore their local heritage in such a fun and creative way, with a number of them having previously researched The Green Children myth for the critically-acclaimed multi-sensory show of the same name which was funded by Arts Council East. Thorpe says: “The young people we work with are so diverse and come from all sorts of different backgrounds with lots of varying needs, that’s what is so great about the Black Shuck project. It’s going to bring so much difference together and celebrate local culture and heritage.”
She adds members can’t wait to visit Blythburgh Church to see Shuck’s scorch marks on the door. Just being able to take the groups away from their everyday environments to experience something new, something to be excited about, is really important.
“I’m overjoyed we’ve been awarded Young Roots funding from Heritage Lottery Fund; it will have an enormous positive impact on our youth theatres and will enable us to create something artistically awesome to add to the local heritage.”
The Black Shuck project will also work closely with Museum of East Anglian Life, the Suffolk Records Office and Christchurch Mansion to provide further historical clues as to what the Black Shuck really was, roaming about rural medieval and Tudor Suffolk.