At the Ensemble, Mark Kilmurry is staging, he thinks, a revolution.
His Richard III is hghly stylised. It’s structured as though it’s an underground, on-the-fly production; actors turn off lights and sound when they hear helicopters overhead. Dogs bark and they quieten, crouch towards the ground. They rush in under cover of heavy coats. They leave in the same manner, after Richard’s death. Kilmurry – director, also playing the title role – pauses for a long, dangerous moment. He looks at the crown. He shrugs on his coat. The helicopter sounds get louder. He grabs a piece of chalk, defiantly writes the date, scrawls Richard III. They were there. This happened.
The staging is clear. It’s even on the website: “A man gathers a group of actors to perform a secret version Richard III hidden away from an oppressive society.”
What isn’t clear is this: Why? What exactly are they rebelling against? What is the point of this framework?
The Ensemble is a privileged theatre company in a privileged space on Sydney’s lower north shore. They are comfortably tame.
It doesn’t feel like a cri de coeur, or a stand in solidarity with oppressed societies across the world. It doesn’t feel like anything, because on the stage, in the actual play, it isn’t anything. It’s edgy for the sake of edginess. It’s urgent without any discernible urgency outside pantomine.
There are no moments laced with additional poignancy. The actors – who are actors performing in rebellion – seem particularly unconcerned with the words and the story, carelessly tossing out lines, wailing dry-eyed, shouting because, apparently, they must shout. But there are no moments of shared understanding. Of, this is why we are secret. Of, this is a leader like our own. Of, this is a radical idea.
Because it’s not a radical idea. It is a very popular Shakespeare play that never feels like anything but a quiet Shakespearean production in a quiet Kirribilli theatre against the harbour.
In the director’s note in the program, Kilmurry explains that the spark of the idea came from arts funding cuts, prompting him to imagine a society where no art was allowed. This explains the evolution of the concept as it now stands to the one thrown out on Kilmurry’s production blog, one where a guy who likes the play invites his colleagues to perform it with him at home on a Friday night.
It just doesn’t read as sincere.
If it’s a gimmick for the sake of being a gimmick, that’s fine, but it’s deeply unsatisfying; play-acting at rebellion just creates a production with a heart that beats hollowly and bloodlessly. Kilmurry, for his part, is energetic, self-satisfied smirking and almost likably malevolent as Richard III, clearly a passion part. He does what he does well.
The rest of the cast seem to have mashed up Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey in their research; they speak a broad range of accents that dip and change as characters and alliances change. They are solid support, to their credit, to Kilmurry, who performs exhaustively, consistently.
The play is the play, the cuts are fine, some touches are cute – taking glasses on and off to demonstrate a quick-change between multiple characters played by a single actor – and the audience laughs often.
But there’s just no point. Aping a statement isn’t making a statement and the play feels uncomfortably close to mocking the very real idea that all art is political, and that sometimes, staging a play is a real act of defiance. This obviously wasn’t the intention, but in the execution, this is how it lands.
Clearly, some people really enjoyed this show. Lots of people probably will; I imagine it will do well at the Ensemble. But to me its empty masquerade of political and social commentary is tiresome.