There couldn’t be a more evocative, beautiful or provocative place to mount a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III than amidst the ruins of Middleham Castle, the North Yorkshire castle where the real Richard III grew up and made his marital home.
At the invitation of English Heritage, Silents Now revived their performed screening of the Frank Benson Richard III film in the ruined Great Hall of Middleham Castle. The show played across Bank Holiday weekend in August 2014. This was at the height of the heated debate about where the newly discovered bones of the real King Richard III should be laid to rest. The fact that Middleham Castle had itself been named as an outlier candidate as a suitable burial site for the dead king did nothing to lessen the provocation of the show playing in this particular beautiful but historically fraught venue.
The Middleham Castle show featured the early silent film of celebrated classical actor Frank Benson performing his grim, vigorous, funny and self-consciously wicked Richard on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1910. A cast of professional actors live-voiced the film, bringing it back into the space of modern audiences. John Sweeney provided live musical accompaniment working in carefully choreographed collaboration with the actor voices. In pre-show mini-talks, audiences learned both about the castle and the old film they were about to see. In post-show Q&As, audience members asked actors and experts about Richard, Middleham, Shakespeare and silent film.
Inviting History’s Richard and Shakespeare’s Richard to cohabit in such evocative space and at such a heightened moment was not without its historical delicacies. The film certainly played quite differently in this historically invested space than it had done in York Theatre Royal the year before. Similarly, the castle space itself read differently in the light of the Shakespearean intervention that spoke vividly of King Richard’s colourfully varied reputation across different historical periods. It was tempting to imagine a few antagonistic ghosts ricocheting around the stones of the old castle as a result of this provocative, but interesting, co-habitation. The historical frisson of this encounter was brought into sharp relief when some members of the audience turned up wearing white roses and Ricardian boar badges. A vigorously contested history pressed directly and interestingly on the contemporary production.