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Paul Vallely: Shakespeare’s poison pen discarded

22 March 2024

Paul Vallely sees a play that seeks to tell the true story of Richard III’s life

Patch Dolan

Kyle Rowe as Richard III in Richard, My Richard, at Shakespeare North Playhouse

Kyle Rowe as Richard III in Richard, My Richard, at Shakespeare North Playhouse

DONALD TRUMP may have coined the term Fake News. But he did not invent the phenomenon. After selling ten million novels, Philippa Gregory has just written her first play — which sets out to counter the denigrations of one of our greatest exponents of Fake News: William Shakespeare.

Nine years ago, Ms Gregory, whose historical novels have centred on the forgotten women of the medieval era, attended an unusual funeral at Leicester Cathedral. As the bones of Richard III were carried into the cathedral, she overheard someone whisper: “God bless and keep His Grace.” The novelist, who has spent her working life trying to imagine what life was like hundreds of years ago, had found herself transported to the funeral of our last Plantagenet king (News, 27 March 2015).

Someone should write a play telling the true story of Richard’s life, she later said. You should write it, was the riposte. So she has. Richard, My Richard opens at the Shakespeare North Playhouse with the character bursting forth from his grave beneath the tarmac of a Leicester car park. He then addresses History, personified in the figure of a bespectacled, somewhat misogynistic, academic, clutching a large white tome containing what we know of our last Yorkist king. It was not like that; that did not happen, Richard says repeatedly.

Richard III, we think — thanks to Shakespeare’s poisoned pen — was a misshapen monster, a “bottled spider”, “hunchback’d like a toad”, whose physical appearance reflected an inner moral deformity. Yet excavators found that he merely had scoliosis, a slight bend in the spine, probably invisible beneath clothes or armour, which would not impede his ability to lead a cavalry charge. His leg bones were symmetrical and well-formed, with no sign of a limp.

None of that suited Shakespeare, whose Queen was descended from a grandfather who had usurped Richard. Praising the Tudors required vilifying the king whom they had overthrown. Recent X-rays of Richard’s portraits show that his hunch was added in Tudor times.

Ms Gregory’s Richard has all the ruthless violence of a medieval king, but was also a peacekeeper in his northern lands, and a reformer on the throne. He was chivalrous, loyal, and brave. The actor playing him in the première portrays him impressively as a stoic soldier of considerable dignity.

The play treads a fine line between staying close to the historical record, where it is clear, and permitting ambiguity where the facts are unknown, as on the fate of the princes in the Tower. Every generation makes its own Richard, Ms Gregory said, in a post-show discussion last week. But it is also possible to create a portrait nearer to historical truth than Tudor propaganda permitted.

The debate about whether history can ever be truly objective goes back to Herodotus and Thucydides, and continues cyclically still. Yet it remains important — not least thanks to our digital existence, in which debate is conducted in shorter and shorter soundbites, and TV series such as The Crown are presumed by many to be history rather than drama.

History favours the winners, and, as the African proverb puts it, until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter. Philippa Gregory has just allowed the lion to roar.

Richard, My Richard is at the Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prospero Place, Prescot, Merseyside, until 30 March. Phone 0151 433 7156. shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk

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