Kate Mulvany proves a most compelling villain in Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3

When I heard Kate Mulvany’s casting in the lead of Bell Shakespeare’s latest adaption of Richard 3 my first thought was “cool- genderbend Shakespeare!”. But as it turns out that’s not really what the casting was about at all.

This casting was about the right person to play the twisted villainous role, and Mulvany was absolutely the correct decision.

So Richard is being played by a woman and that’s the end of that. There is however a less subtle shift in gender dynamics and performance hierarchy throughout the rest of the production. On this stage it is the women that have become the keen focus, left to suffer through all the death and mistreatment. Rose Riley, Meredith Penman, Sandy Gore and Sarah Woods hold the stage powerfully in their roles. There is a “moment” for each actress where the futility and despair reach a final breaking point for their character and we are presented with some incredible performances.

But no one compares to Mulvany on this stage. It’s at the very core of how she delivers each and every monologue- sneering at the other “players” around her and smirking at us knowingly. Childhood cancer has left Mulvany with a spinal malformation, a crooked twist that she usually takes great pains to keep hidden but here it becomes a pivotal (and all to real) part of the character. At one point Richard strips to reveal a deformed body, and beholding the twist through Mulvany’s body the audience clearly flinches, recoiling into their seats at the sheer power of the moment.

The play itself does not shift from its location in a gentleman’s club, with all cast members remaining in the background on stage throughout the duration of the performance as well. The role switches between the men of the production are denoted by slight costume variations as each of their characters inevitably faces their death. There is a fierce undercurrent of foreboding that is ever present, enhanced through a deep droning sound at pivotal moments. If there is one thing I could do without though, it would be the somewhat awkward transitions into the casting singing hymn-like pieces in harmony. I’m not afraid of a song in a production but these just felt disruptive to the overall emphasis on the words of the play. I wanted Richmond’s fierce battlefield pep talk without that sort of competition.

But returning once more to Mulvany’s indispensable performance. Richard is all at once “subtle, false and treacherous”, a unrepentant killer, a cruel misogynist. But in this production the character is given something more. At the hands of Mulvany’s glances, Richard has become callously charming. And in being given a glimpse into Richard’s thoughts, how he continuously refers to his deformity in despair at not having done anything to deserve it at birth, and in seeing the way he is treated by those around him- called “dog” and disgusting, you feel the ever so slight rustlings of uneasy sympathy. You cannot forgive him, but as Richard lies dying and delivering his bitter last, the words “I am myself alone” as they echo through the silence seem ever more resonating.

Mulvany proves a (most compelling) villain.

Richard 3 will be performing at the Sydney Opera House until the 1st of April, before touring to Canberra Theatre Centre and Arts Centre Melbourne. For more information and to book visit bellshakespeare.com.au