Ian Bartholomew: Playing the Bard’s warrior king on home turf

Richard III is one of the great stage roles written by Shakespeare and it is being tackled in York by Ian Bartholomew. He speaks to Nick Ahad.

Ian Bartholomew as Richard III in York
Ian Bartholomew as Richard III in York

Kevin Spacey, leg trussed up in a calliper, under the direction of Sam Mendes in 2001. Antony Sher, twisted out of shape and earning an Olivier in 1984. Sir Ian McKellen on film in 1995. Kenneth Branagh, Sheffield Crucible, 2002 and Laurence Olivier himself, 1955.

And now, Ian Bartholomew is the latest actor to take on the role of Richard III in Shakespeare’s telling of one of England’s most bloodthirsty warrior kings. Bartholomew steps into, it is fair to say, some pretty enormous shoes. He does, however, have one thing over all those he follows. He gets to play the part of the Son of York with more historical knowledge than any of the others, thanks to the recent discovery of the king’s bones underneath a car park in Leicester.

The big question, of course, is where Bartholomew thinks the final resting place of Richard III should be – in Leicester, where his remains were found, or in York, where a campaigning group from the city believes they should end up? More of that later.

For now, though, he must be pleased to have the chance to use the historically accurate new information in playing the role of the king? In the past he’s been played as someone who uses crutches, generally as having a ‘hunchback’ and a severe limp. Often all three.

“I started out with everything – a hump, a limp – and gradually it’s all been stripped away,” says Bartholomew.

“Thanks to the new information we have from finding his bones, we have a much better understanding now of what his disability actually was.

“I have a bit of a hunched back, but his disability was something he had been coping with since the age of 13 – and he became a successful warrior king with it, so it clearly didn’t hamper him too much.

“We know that he had idiopathic scoliosis, but again it didn’t have a major impact on him, so it doesn’t necessarily have to restrict me physically in playing the part. The biggest thing we’ve learned from discovering his bones that has helped us in this production is understanding how he died – we know he suffered certain blows to specific parts of his skull. That new information means we’re able to recreate – in a very stylised manner of course – the way that he would have actually died.”

It is an exciting notion, the idea that this new production in York this month is to be the first since the discovery of the king’s bones. However, while the recreation of the death of Richard III – a historically accurate recreation – is a thrilling addition to this new production, it’s not all blood and guts.

“I’m a bit shameless in the production, frankly,” he says.

“Richard is psychotic, but he is also very charming and it is much more interesting to play him in that way. He murders his way to the top and there is a lot of blood on his hands, but no-one wants to see a gorefest.”

Bartholomew is settled into the role for the new production, which is being co-produced between York Theatre Royal and Nottingham Playhouse. Having opened it in Nottingham, he has got to grips with one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles – it is second in terms of stage time only to Hamlet – and is confident ahead of arriving in York.

Antony Sher, when he played the role for the RSC, wrote a diary of his year preparing for the role. Year of the King is a brilliant insight into the process of an actor preparing for a part, but it also put Richard III in the panoply of roles that an actor approaches, aware it carries with it a certain weight of history.

“There have been some landmark productions over the years, without a doubt, but you cannot think about them. You simply have to decide ‘this is how I’m playing him’ and go with your own instinct,” says Bartholomew.

“It is one of those roles that is pretty high up on the list for an actor. I’ve been wanting to do this for quite a long time and now to actually get to do it is really very satisfying. He really is quite a character.”

A character with one of the bloodiest rises to a seat of power in the Shakespearean canon – and he does have some brilliant speeches on the way there.

“It’s another one of those things where you have to forget all those actors who have performed the speeches before you and just go for it,” says Barholomew.

“It’s about making sense of what Shakespeare has him saying and how to make that make sense for a contemporary audience – don’t forget, the words are all there. What Shakespeare wrote isn’t necessarily what actually happened, historically – but he never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”

Speaking of a good story – what does Bartholomew think about the bones of Richard? Where should they be finally laid?

“Ha, I’m not answering that... although. Well, if you insist, ultimately, I think they should probably be in Westminster.”

Richard III, York Theatre Royal, to Nov 23, 01904 623568. www.

Talk and rare film screening

YORK Theatre Royal and Lamplighter Drama Ltd have come together to tell a different story of Richard III, a story of a man, a King, who was brave and audacious, and who fought for his country until the bitter end.

Michael Oakley, former student of the University of York will take part in an illustrated talk with actors from the production performing extracts from Richard III. There will also be a screening of a rare, black and white silent film version of Shakespeare’s play Richard III, made in 1911.

For more information and to book tickets for Richard III, the silent film or the illustrated talk, visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk