5 Notable Theatre Performances of Richard III | History Hit

5 Notable Theatre Performances of Richard III

Late 16th-century portrait of King Richard III (left); Ian McKellen (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard III is one of the most famous of England’s kings. Rumoured to have murdered his nephews as part of his lust for power, his reputation after his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 further plummeted in the face of Elizabethan propaganda. Nowhere has his legacy – truthful or otherwise – been more famously memorialised than in Shakespeare’s Richard III, (1592-94) with notable lines including ‘My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.’ (Act 5 Scene 3). Early records indicate that the play was first performed before King Charles in 1633, and was a roaring success, largely because of its depiction of Richard III as cruel, power-hungry and pathetic.

A famously difficult role to portray, it is clear that the facts and myths have combined to provide a platform for some of the very best actors in the world to interpret William Shakespeare’s story.

Here’s our pick of 5 of the best portrayals of Shakespeare’s Richard III in history.

1. Laurence Olivier (1944)

Laurence Olivier appeared as Richard III at the Old Vic repertory at the New Theatre in 1944. In spite of theatre reviews which had to be short because of wartime paper rationing, Olivier’s performance was heralded as one of the finest of his entire career.

In 1955, Olivier took on the triple role of director, producer and protagonist in a film adaptation of Richard III, which was inspired by his successful portrayal of the character in 1944. The cast included many notable Shakespearean actors, and was so immensely popular that it has been cited by the BFI as possibly having ‘done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work’.

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2. Antony Sher (1990)

Bill Alexander directed Antony Sher in a legendary performance of Richard III at the RSC. Sher portrayed Richard as flamboyant, with the Gothic cathedral-style set framing his agile movement across the stage on two black crutches, making him appear like a spider. He also used the crutches as pincer-like tools, and had a black hump on his back that was finally pierced by a cruciform sword.

3. Ian McKellen (1990)

Ian McKellen at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ian McKellen starred in the 1990 version of Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production. Set in the 20th century, McKellen played a deadpan and deadly Richard as was a fascist, power-hungry patrician in the 1930s. The production made unconventional uses of various key British landmarks by displaying them in different locations or being used for different purposes, such as repurposing St Pancras train station to a government headquarters building. It was adapted into a film, also starring McKellen, in 1995.

4. Jonathan Slinger (2007)

Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Richard at The Courtyard Theatre was heralded as one of the theatrical highlights of the early 20th century. Directed by Michael Boyd, it was first played in Stratford before transferring to the Roundhouse in London. Slinger’s Richard III was pasty and unwell-looking, and had a large birthmark on the side of his head.

David Garrick as Richard III, 1745

Image Credit: William Hogarth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Arthur Hughes (2022)

Richard III was famously known for being disabled, with the popular notion being that he was hunchbacked. However, an examination of his skeletal remains have shown that he suffered from scoliosis. Arthur Hughes made history when he became the first disabled actor to portray Richard at the RSC. His performance was heralded as a triumph, with reviewers particularly praising his stage presence and quiet vulnerability.

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Lucy Davidson