Onto the stage, in casually regal procession, stroll the members of the royal House of Plantagenet, whose rival factions of York and Lancaster have been engaged in fighting the Wars of the Roses for some 30 years.
The men are sharply suited, the women in sleek velvet cocktail dresses. Amongst them is a handsome but misshapen, black leather-clad figure, whose affable, slightly sinister manner singles him out for attention. The royal family poses briefly, as though for a photograph, then departs, watched with a degree of amusement by the man in black.
He turns slowly to face the sea of expectant faces in the audience. Then he grins cheekily and greets them in a broad Belfast accent, 'Hello'. Shakespeare may not have written it, but with that single word, Jonjo O’Neill has the packed house in Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre held tight in the palm of his claw-like gloved hand.
With no further ado, he launches into a lyrical yet audacious delivery of the famous opening soliloquy. 'Now is the season of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York.' He speaks it as a piece of blatant seduction. In this production the character of Richard of Gloucester, so often portrayed as a caricatured monster, as an unsettlingly attractive, uncompromisingly ruthless manipulator.
When he smiles, as he does with sickening frequency, his mouth is filled with rotten teeth. It is a hint that here is a creature who, despite his facile charm, is infected to the very core of his being.
But there is vulnerability in O’Neill’s performance as well. His youthful energy and repellent charm barely mask a troubled, deeply damaged young man, whose physical malformation and disagreeable disposition caused his mother to reject him from the moment of his birth.
RSC associate director Roxana Silbert has assembled an outstanding cast for this thoughtful, beautifully paced production. It forms part of the company’s Nations at War season, comprised of three plays with themes about the acquisition of power and the right to lead a nation. It's a timely season, given that the BBC are currently adapting Shakespeare's history in their The Hollow Crown series.
There are no gimmicks and no distracting visual effects. A minimal steel-walled set encloses a truthful, blazingly clear reading of the text, The corpse-littered plot leads inevitably towards the fall of the House of Plantagenet, the ending of civil strife in England and the founding of the House of Tudor in the shape of the newly-crowned Henry VII.
Rarely have the play’s female characters been given such power and presence. Scottish actress Siobhan Redmond as the haughty Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Richard’s brother Edward IV, is at her best in her final confrontation with her brother-in-law, during which she finds herself both repelled and fascinated by him.
Pippa Nixon, whose first job out of drama school was with Prime Cut in Belfast, is a sexy Lady Anne, powerless to resist the dubious attraction of the man responsible for the death of her husband and father-in-law.
Sandra Duncan, meanwhile, plays the Duchess of York, whose icily cruel verbal assault on her son speaks volumes for the murderous adult he has become. And a wild-haired Paola Dionisotti brings a strange exoticism to Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI, spitting out a flood of curses which will subsequently come to fruition.
But the evening belongs to O’Neill, the 33-year old actor from Belfast’s Whiterock Road, who began his career with Ulster Youth Theatre and Ulster Theatre Company, before winning a scholarship to Guildford School of Acting.
Now firmly established as one of the finest classical actors in these islands, he emerges as no more and no less his own self in this, one of the greatest roles created by Shakespeare. The play’s poetry and dark humour could have been written for his natural vocal delivery, so effortlessly and harmoniously does it emerge. When he is not on stage, the audience searches for him. When he is present, it is well nigh impossible to look at anyone else.
The play weaves a tangled path through political manoeuvring and ruthless bloodletting, revealing a relentless pursuit of absolute power against a backdrop of personal struggle. While others die at his command, Richard’s hands remain unblemished.
It may not have been intentional, but for those familiar with the politics of the north, O’Neill’s voice and accent precipitate a chilling contemporary resonance. 'Our dreadful marches to delightful measures...' It serves to bring a play about 15th century England, written towards the end of the 16th century, right bang into the consciousness of our own time.
Richard III runs at the Swan Theatre in Statford-upon-Avon until 15 September.