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Published on 14th February 2017

A loveable rogue: Kate Mulvany finds common ground with Shakespeare's monstrous monarch

The acclaimed playwright and actor has a soft spot for one of the Bard's most complex villains, Richard III. She tells Maxim Boon why the tortured despot deserves a little love.

The insatiable appetite of a power-hungry ruler, blinkered by his own scheming and manipulative ambition, throws a prosperous nation into turmoil.

This sentence could very well be lifted from any of the thousands of articles being penned by journalists covering the helter-skelter calamities of the American Presidency. But the ruler it refers to isn't in the White House. In fact, for the better part of 530 years, he was buried under what is now a carpark in the British city of Leicester.

The uncanny parallels between today's geopolitical turbulence and Shakespeare's vision of the last King of the Plantagenets are striking. So, it might seem perfectly logical for a contemporary production of the Bard's history play, Richard III, to be plugged into this zeitgeist. However, playwright and actor Kate Mulvany's edit of the text – for a new production by Bell Shakespeare, in which she also stars in the title role – isn't intended as political commentary. "It has nothing to do with Trump," she unequivocally declares.

It's an important distinction to clarify, Mulvany believes. Not least because the influence of Trump has become so prevalent. Many artists around the world have been provoked into making work knowingly charged-up by the fear and discrimination that has become an idee fixe of present-day politics. And indeed, Mulvany's Richard III seems similarly resonant. Her edit subverts some of this play's famously misogynist leanings, giving its female characters more agency; another potentially polemic statement, given Trump's sickening "locker room talk" and the ensuing mobilisation of the Women's March movement. But whatever connections to current affairs might be inferred from this new production, Mulvany's take is in fact built on a more poignant foundation. She isn't merely side-stepping predictable populism, but rather projecting Richard's reign through a deeply personal lens.

For her, championing the agency and strength of Richard III's female roles has been about challenging rusted-on precepts, rather than cashing in on a hot-button issue. "Often, you'll find productions edited to take out a lot of the amazing female voices in this story. It becomes about men grappling for power, and that really bothered me," she says. "The power is held in the wombs of the women in this play, and in fact, I've tried to sneakily give them more even than Shakespeare did, by finding those moments between the lines that allow us to discover more about these characters. That has nothing to do with Trump. That has nothing to do with the Women's Marches. It has everything to do with me being a very, very proud woman, and by being surrounded by actresses that are astounding in their talent and deserve every moment on the stage. And you know what? They're going to get it."

The most conspicuous departure in Mulvany's Richard - namely that she is playing a role typically played by a man - also appears, at first glance, to be a feminist statement. But inverting the titular King's sex is similarly unpolitical, Mulvany insists: "For me, it's about his agenda, not his gender."

It's not the first time this has been done. In 2003, Kathryn Hunter played Richard in a landmark all-female production at the Globe Theatre in London, and closer to home, Pamela Rabe brought another incarnation of the misshapen Machiavel to the stage in Sydney Theatre Company's 2009 production of TheWar Of The Roses. However, in those instances, this gender-bending revelled in showcasing Richard's quintessentially ruthless masculinity, in spite of its portrayer's sex. It revealed a curious irony; Richard played by a woman is hardly different from Richard played by a man.

Mulvany hopes to convey a more tangible cognitive dissonance in her performance. "I'm interested in what goes on in the background, in hearing what is normally played as an incredibly sexist remark, with an added wink to the audience," she explains. "These are lines that should make you squirm because they are coming out of a woman's mouth. I'm fascinated about how a female Richard adds a different element to that side of the play. But I'm also interested in taking the misogyny away. There are some moments that are traditionally played in a quite perverse or devious way that can actually be played for true romance and true love. It's a very different way into this character that I'm intrigued by."

Finding the softer side of a character who is unambiguously a villain might sound like a bold gamble – or outright blasphemy for some purists, no doubt. But Mulvany and Richard share something that may account for this surprising affinity. Both have scoliosis - an abnormal curvature of the spine. This common ground has had a huge influence on Mulvany's understanding of this vilified man. 

"I have the same physicality as Richard. I know what it's like to grow up kind of standing outside everyone else. I know what it's like to be different," Mulvany notes. "Fortunately, I was surrounded by support and people who instilled me with confidence, who told me to be proud of my body. I wasn't shamed for it. But Richard, my heart goes out to him because he is told over and over that his body is this obscene, appalling, horrifying mistake. He's called the most awful names by the people who are supposed to love him the most. I had the opposite experience, but that's made me appreciate how damaged Richard is psychologically. If I hadn't had that support, I don't know if I'd be the person that I am or have the life that I have today."

Far from seeking out the typical malice of Shakespeare's anti-hero, there's a touching affection in Mulvany's understanding of Richard. "He's a cake that's had the wrong ingredients thrown into it by various cooks," she says. "Yes, he's a murderer. Yes, he's a misogynist. But he still has a conscience. As much as he likes to believe he doesn't, by the end of the play we realise that we're not dealing with a sociopath, not really. I can't help but love him, because no one else does. He's been so unloved by everyone, the biggest gift I can give him as the person embodying him is a bit of love."

While she may share some physical traits with Richard, her transformation into the 15th-century king has not been an easy one. Mulvany has spent decades adjusting her posture and gait to mask her spinal injury, but in her preparations for this role, she has had to unlearn these habits. "It sets off a domino effect in my body, so just by allowing myself to fall into the shape I am naturally, I'll walk with a limp, I'll rest my hand on my hip in a certain way," she explains. "People might even think I'm putting it on, but I'm not using a fake hump, I'm not using a cane. It's all 100% just me."

Intriguingly, this has put Mulvany in a unique position. With her physical performance already innately aligned with her character’s, she has been able to investigate the subtler nuances of Richard's persona in greater depth. “I’ve been so struck by the idea of loneliness and aloneness in this play,” she observes. “Even within this very rich and vibrant historical family, every single one of those characters is desperately alone and desperately lonely. And Richard, in particular, is made to feel more alone than anyone else. For me, that resonates more than any Trump connection, or even more than any feminist connection. The crux of this play is its loneliness and being forced to feel so alone by the maelstrom of power that surrounds us."

Shakespeare's mangled monarch has inspired a kaleidoscopic variety of interpretations, by some of the greatest talents to ever grace a stage. From Ian McKellen’s Il Duce-modelled tyrant, to Kevin Spacey’s flashy, flamboyant villainy, to the hair-trigger rages and dangerous athleticism of Anthony Sher’s iconic 1984 performance, few creative stones have remained unturned in the pursuit of an original guise.

Even so, Mulvany's interpretation of Richard, with its softened, insular psychology, ambiguous gender, and verbatim physicality, is nonetheless a radical one. This feels oddly apt, given that this is not only the first time Bell Shakespeare has staged this play since its founder, John Bell, stepped down as artistic director last year, but also the company's first production of Richard III since Bell himself played the title role in 2002. As Australia’s flagship Shakespearian troupe enters its second epoch, under the leadership of its new artistic director Peter Evans, it seems touchingly poetic that it should do so with such a bold, brave mandate to challenge the form’s traditions.

Nonetheless, in her preparations for the role, Mulvany has been mentored closely by Bell, who she affectionately calls "JB." 

“He is such a gracious, generous man, who will open his cupboard of knowledge whenever he’s asked. But he’ll never force his ideas on you, that’s the joy of working alongside him,” Mulvany smiles. “I’m sitting here thinking – I'm getting quite teary actually – that if I went back in a time machine, back to 2002 when he last played the role, and said to him, ‘JB, the next Richard III will be played by a woman,’ he’d probably reply, ‘Of course it will.’”

First published 14 February 2017, for The Music