Richard III review – Tom Mothersdale hypnotises as the unhinged overlord

Tom Mothersdale’s Richard III licks, spits and bites his way to the crown in a crackling, arachnid performance. With curved spine, tilted shoulder and left leg clamped in a twisted brace, this spider king is brittle. In Headlong’s sturdy but frustratingly safe production, it is a grim pleasure to watch him break.

Mothersdale woos Lady Anne (Leila Mimmack) and us with ease, shooting smirks and shrugs with impeccable comic timing. But each one is tinged with longing, revealing startling vulnerability beneath his rage. He buckles under the gaze of his stern mother, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), first as she recoils from his touch and later as he’s left quivering from her kiss. We never pity or forgive Richard, but get closer to understanding the recklessness of his evil. If he cannot have love, he will monopolise hate.

John Haidar’s production unashamedly enjoys the bloodbath, adding yet another body to the play’s count by prefacing the drama with Richard’s murder of his cousin from Henry VI part III. The staging is best in its creative villainy, with the use of a poisonous hip-flask and a cannibalistic destruction of incriminating evidence of the deaths of the young princes. Bodily fluids are a constant source of grotesque joy. When Richard is spat at, he wipes his face and licks his gloved finger. He later repeats the action with blood.

Family feud … John Sackville as Henry and Tom Mothersdale as Richard. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The deaths don’t all work; every time a knife touches a body, red lights flash and a buzzer sounds, like a hi-tech game of Operation. But at least this is more engaging than the court scenes which are dull and lifeless. Mothersdale’s performance, too, has lulls – a series of lines are rushed through – when we want more focus on his spindly, seductive sinning.

The personal is prioritised over the political, with Chiara Stephenson’s gothic mirrored dungeon reflecting the action in on itself and digging deeper into Richard’s unravelling mind than his fractured nation. As it tours, the show has potential to mature into something remarkable, and for Mothersdale to prove himself a defining villain.

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