The ensemble slowly populates Hampstead Theatre's stage wearing burns victim's balaclava-esque masks and over-sized lab coats, all wielding rusty implements that look like they've come from an abattoir or, worse still, an old Victorian operating theatre. They say nothing just stare at the audience as they take their seats.
This is Richard III horror-style, led by a protagonist with a sinister smile and the charm of a snake.
Ed Hall's all-male Propeller Theatre company charts the Duke of Gloucester's bloody rise to the thrown at a lightning pace - Shakespeare's second longest play has been hacked back to two and a half hours but the pace is pitched at extremes.
Richard Clothier's bleach-blond, would-be king rattles off his asides, ranting and raging as his evil plot takes shape and old fashioned hospital screens are whisked across the stage with characters appearing and disappearing behind them. All this contrasts with the almost slow-motion lead up to the murders, studded by a clock ticking and low singing by the ensemble.
But what gives this production it's really nightmarish edge is that Clothier's Richard is the villain with a sense of humour, he enjoys immensely the subterfuge and the challenge of his murderous plotting revelling in his success. He is a villain of the Heath Ledger/Joker school: he is bad to his core but has charm, this is a Richard that makes you laugh and is the more dangerous for it.
Clothier naturally steals the show but that isn't to say there are weak performances elsewhere, far from it, it's just that he is so good. Naturally I was curious to see how men in dresses would work for the female characters. Ed Hall has given them tale coats and long, bustle skirts, there are no wigs or make-up and it shouldn't work but it does - a testament to the actors abilities.
My only gripe is that while Shakespeare often benefits from a little trimming, the cuts together with the pace meant it was sometimes difficult to follow the intricacies of the plot but it is only a small gripe. I loved it and think I grinned through out.
I'm giving it five stars and it will be interesting to see how Kevin Spacey's production at the Old Vic, which I'm seeing in August, measures up.
Richard III is running in rep with Comedy of Errors until July 9. If you missed my post about the trailer you can find that here and here's a little video interview with Propeller MD Nick Chesterfield talking about the chainshaw scene and the violence.
* Propeller/Hampstead should get a special mention for having the best value programmes - £3 and they are good for both Richard III and the Comedy of Errors.
Kelsey Brookfield who plays Lord Rivers and the Duchess of York was in Women Beware Women at the National which also featured Samuel Barnett who was in His Dark Materials with Mr W. I think there is another one but as I'm seeing Propeller's Comedy of Errors next week which has the same cast I'll save it for then.