The pairings of plays in the Tobacco Factory’s annual Bristol season usually reward close attention. When director Andrew Hilton last cross-cast an early comedy with a Ricardian history, his nuanced reading of both texts found the stripping away of social performance to be at the heart of both Richard IIand The Comedy of Errors, holding up Richard and Adriana as characters ultimately trapped by the self-presentation so dear to them. For the 2013 season, Richard IIIand The Two Gentlemen of Veronawere put into conversation with one another, with the connecting emphasis this time falling on the experience of women in relation to manipulative, sexually aggressive men. Yet despite the rewards gained through performances that pointed to the emotional trauma undergone by the female characters in both plays, Hilton’s atypical alterations to text and structure muted their effect, resulting in an uncharacteristically colourless season.
The apparent central interest in women may have been a consequence of the excellent repertory casting of Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Anne/Julia and Lisa Kay as Queen Elizabeth/Silvia. In the intimate in-the-round studio space of the Tobacco Factory, both actors concentrated on reaction. Faced with John Mackay’s dynamic, protean Richard and the egregiously charming Proteus of Piers Wehner, the central women of these plays shrank to the edges of the stage, allowing the audience to see their distress and fear while their antagonists retained the central stage space.
Kay, as Elizabeth, adopted a formality and confidence in her early appearances that Richard challenged directly, forcing her to the stage’s edges even while seeming to show her respect. The performed deference [End Page 509]accorded her at the outset ghosted that she received in her other role as Silvia, where she was raised to a literal pedestal in the corner of the auditorium to hear Proteus’s wooing, and later she found herself up a “tree” for the play’s conclusion. The obeisance shown her in both productions progressed to a stripping away of her dignities. Mackay’s proxy wooing of Elizabeth’s daughter through her mother saw Kay frozen to the spot while he took his time in approaching her and taking over her space before kissing her lengthily. Mackay’s Richard was compelling in both senses, a magnetic and manipulative presence who relied on an oily voice, his height and an easy confidence to work his way up to his victims in a measured but unhesitant manner, allowing no defense against an “attack” that never revealed itself as such.
Myer-Bennett’s Anne suffered more obviously as, in one telling gesture, Richard snaked a hand around her shoulders that rested momentarily against her neck. The triumph of the wooing scene was again that at no point did Richard’s strategy become obvious or aggressive: his movements towards her were so subtle that once he had put the sword aside and gotten up from his knees he was able to take her hand and kiss her as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Myer-Bennett, meanwhile, allowed her hatred of Richard...