One of Richard III’s many embodiments is sent off on his last hurrah

Gone is the winter of our discontent.

King Richard III is on his last royal tour. Until his reinternment in Leicester Cathedral on Thursday March 26, the remains of the infamous villain are being paraded to the crowds as he journeys around his realm one last time.

But he won’t be the only Richard III you’ll be able to catch sight of this year. Benedict Cumberbatch has been spotted as his latest incarnation, shooting for his role in the Hollow Crown, and there will be many others – in July another Richard will be on the stage at London’s Globe Theatre.

If the Globe production retains the artistic choices used the last time this version appeared, Richard will be “a physically imposing and attractive protagonist … a leader – bold charismatic, presidential”. He will also be Chinese; and he will be accompanied by three witches and supported by murderers who engage in “house of the flying daggers” acrobatics while speaking the Mandarin equivalent of Cockney.

This production, from the National Theatre of China, is a ripple from the enormous splash of theatrical invention and global investment that went into the Shakespeare events of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. That global celebration of international Shakespeare also featured a “feminist” Richard III from the RSC, giving due attention to the play’s powerful women and a bilingual Portuguese/English show from Rio de Janiero that played wittily with the multiple critical and theatrical possibilities that the play has inspired over the past century.

Man of many faces

All this is, perhaps, what Richard III means to us now. A figure that largely springs from the words of Shakespeare, a Richard III no longer contained by language, nationhood or history. Nor has he been since adaptation of the plays began in the 18th century. Writers, directors have created new Richards for every production. The reason they can do so is because Shakespeare has made a character who is gloriously inconsistent and changes his version of the truth to suit his own purposes.

Shakespeare’s Richard manages information, controls events and always uses his physical deformity as both an excuse (he cannot prove a lover and so will be a villain) and a tool (blaming the Kings’s mistress Jane Shore for his withered arm and then denouncing those who doubt the connection).

Of course this Richard III is not a representation of the real historical figure: Shakespeare uses his story to reflect on the very idea of using history for tyrannical purposes. Tyrants before and since have used similar forms of misinformation which had allowed other inventive writers and directors to create Richards that are as close to Hitler, Nixon (another “Tricky Dick”) or Saddam Hussein as they are to the last Plantaganet king.

The carpark king

While all this inventive creativity was taking place, the “real” Richard III lay entombed, latterly under a carpark, in Leicester. His bones, identified by the University of Leicester archaeologists, will finally be laid to rest, providing a “real” landmark.

The work involved in making this event feasible was begun by a genealogist who established a family tree from Richard III to a known descendant in the female line. The female line is important since the mitochondrial DNA transmitted in this way is not subject to contamination by undocumented illegitimacy – what one archaeologist called “the mediaeval milkman”.

The thesis created by this family tree was then tested and supported by cartographers who identified the Greyfriars abbey burial site, excavators who systematically dug the trenches, carbon data analysts who established the dates of the remaining structure, a systems analyst who could create programmes to crunch the huge quantity of data produced and the osteologists who examined the bones of a “young male adult in the east end of the church” and identified the adolescent scoliosis that had afflicted his spine. The hump is not only not enough for archaeology: actors have discovered that performing deformity in the theatre does not in itself create convincing characterisation as Tony Hancock’s vigorous fusion of Laurence Olivier and Long John Silver showed.

But there is another connection between archaeology and theatre. When the Leicester archaeologists told their fascinating story to a rapt audience at the British Academy, they indicated, as Wolf Hall and its avatars have done all winter, that the fascination with the connection between real and fictional history is everywhere.

Stories of the past, whether they are stage performances or regime-changing conflicts, have been turned into entertaining experiences ever since the first enterprising inn-keepers offered tours of Bosworth field or Shakespeare’s birthplace to the passing trade. Already the excitement of discovering the “real” Richard has taken on a new incarnation at the Richard III visitor centre, which offers visitors a chance to experience the legend of dynasty, death and discovery in yet another new way.