The Royal Shakespeare Company's designer Tom Piper writes interestingly in the programme for Richard III at the Roundhouse about the shift into modern dress from the broadly historical costumes used in Henry VI. On the Guardian website I wrote last week about my irritation at the way the costumes for Henry IV and Henry V seemed to be a wacky mix-and-match selection of ahistorical elements from different centuries. Piper's costumes for Henry VI were a more coherent blend of the medieval and the Elizabethan, though he explains that he wasn't trying for a rigorous period approach. 'Although people believe that the Henry VI trilogy is in period dress, I drew on influences from many periods: for example the major influence on the look of the soldiers is First World War uniforms, and they all wear contemporary army boots. Jack Cade and his followers owe as much to Stanley Kubrick as to Bosch. Many of the characters have coats which could easily be worn out on the street, they just lack pockets.' Piper explains the shift into a more contemporary style of dress for Richard III as follows: 'At the end of the Henry VI trilogy Edward promises a lasting peace and declares an end to the civil war. A shift into modernity is rather like the clean break with the past that he promises.' I have to say I don't really follow this logic; the continuity between the last part of Henry VI and Richard III is overwhelming, and the brave new world of peace never materialises. In story terms, therefore, the logical thing would be to continue in a period framework. Michael Boyd's direction at first seems to emphasise the continuity by picking up in the opening scene exactly where the previous play ends -- with Richard of Gloucester cuddling a swaddled baby, the infant offspring of his brother King Edward. But this time, before he launches into 'Now is the winter of our discontent...' Richard's white swaddling sheet is revealed to contain nothing at all -- it's merely a large napkin on which he wipes his chin. But as the play progresses and it becomes clear that mediaeval costumes have been swapped for modern ones, apart from the ritual elements such as swords and crowns, it's clear why Boyd decided that the last play in the cycle needed a slightly different approach. While Henry VI is all Sturm und Drang, highly physical and full of movement, Richard III is less about civil war than about high-level politics, and it relies more on words than on violent action. So there are no more flying trapezes and no more use of the space under the stage. The use of music, sound effects and stage smoke is more restrained, quite rightly, so as not to get in the way of Jonathan Slinger's outstanding performance as Richard. The switch to modern dress gives the play a different feel and also enhances the moments when the supernatural seems to break through. Katy Stephens' Queen Margaret brings a sack on stage (sacks occur quite frequently in this cycle of plays) and as she curses Richard and the other Plantagenets, she reassembles the skeleton of her dead son. The contemporary clothes worn by those who are watching this grisly spectacle seem to accentuate the frisson of horror. There's another nice moment when we're reminded that violence isn't a monopoly of the late middle ages. When Tyrrel murders the young princes, he proves to Richard that he has done the deed by showing him a photo he has taken on a mobile phone. Slinger's performance brings to mind a whole string of psychopathic dictators and their henchmen. At one point, while dreaming on the night before the battle of Bosworth, he suddenly sheds his deformities and does a pirouette across the stage. Among last night's audience was Sir Antony Sher, who played Richard for the RSC back in the 1990s as a cripple on crutches. I missed that production, but I've seen the part played on stage by Sir Ian McKellen and by Kathryn Hunter at Shakespeare's Globe. I'm not going to make comparisons, but just say that I enjoyed this one the most because I'd had the opportunity to see Henry VI beforehand. Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and other dictators won't be coming to the RSC's Richard III, but the play's message about tyranny will never go out of date. The slippery slope starts when people start to believe that the end always justifies the means. As Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty writes in the programme notes, 'It begins perhaps with the sofa informality of the ''off the record'' meeting and ends with scriveners re-writing history and lawyers advising that a little bit of torture might be possible in extremis.' Exactly.