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Now is the Winter
Published on Saturday, 13 August 2011

3 stars

Assembly Hall (venue website)
4-29 Aug, 12:30pm-1:30pm
Reviewed by Ellen Macpherson

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Richard III is a bold choice to make, when picking which of Shakespeare’s great plays to convert to a one-man – or on this case one-woman – show. In typical Shakespearean style, there are a lot of characters with the same name (specifically, Edward) and too many noble titles to count. It’s challenging to keep up with even a straightforward and traditional production of the play, but when many of these characters aren’t physically in the production, it’s even harder to keep track.

Helen McGregor is set the mammoth task of playing Bess, a loyal servant to Richard III – who narrates and gives her opinions on the events surrounding her boss’s Machiavellian rise to power. And she is brilliant. Though I have my reservations about the production as a whole, I cannot deny that McGregor gives a stellar and captivating performance. The show is essentially a one-hour monologue, written in Shakespearean dialect, delivered with finesse and conviction – and McGregor even manages to do it while preparing actual food!

Sadly, the brilliance of McGregor’s performance cannot overcome some difficulties with the script. The programme does mention that it “does not aim to be a potted retelling of Shakespeare’s original play,” and really, I’d never expected it to be. Indeed, seeing the narrative from the perspective of the everyday woman was refreshing; I think sometimes people forget that Shakespeare wrote for the masses rather than just the elites. Bess is a gossipy, average lady, and I think that resonated with a lot of the audience.

However, in striving to retell the story from a sole perspective of a lower-class woman, it misses a whole dimension. Bess does, at times, imitate other characters in an attempt to recreate a certain scene, but instead of being endearing, I found it rather confusing. And I’ve read Richard III! For a viewer that isn’t familiar with the original work (however rare that viewer might be), it might make no sense whatsoever. Going right down to just one character may be a cut too far; if Bess were used as a narrator in a bigger play, perhaps she would have been an absolute gem that you’d remember for years to come.

On a more positive note, the play certainly achieves its aim to provide a different perspective. When Richard III was originally written, it was quite the propaganda piece at a time when anti-Richard sentiment was rife in society. This play successfully spins that perception on its head, providing a fairly positive view of the King. It’s thought-provoking, whether you agree with it or not.

If you’re quite familiar with Richard III, you’ll definitely enjoy watching the work from a different perspective. If you haven’t read it in years – or not at all – I fear you may end up confused. But still, it’s worth seeing for McGregor’s performance alone. The play is, at the very least, a lovely nod to the everyman (or woman) that seems to know everything... and that’s always been my favourite of Shakespeare’s plot devices.

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