18th June, 2016, matinee
When I studied Richard III at university, it was easily one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Its episodic plot is unfussy, driven entirely by Richard’s ascent to the throne stopping at nothing that might get in his way, followed by his decline. And Richard himself is a character associated with so many iconic performances. Production photographs and reviews show actors twisting their bodies to pull off extremely physically demanding interpretations. There have been Richards who have played on the animalistic imagery in the play, and performances which have relished the showmanship of the character. So what does Ralph Fiennes bring to the role? His Richard has a hilarious dry wit and a great amount of menace behind his feigned sophistication.
Rupert Goold’s postmodern production is framed by the excavation of Richard III’s bones from a car park in Leicester in 2012. Pre show we see archaeologists digging up soil and taking a twisted spine out of the ground. It has the effect of giving the past a resonance in the present. It also merges history and fiction, asking if modern day politicians achieve the same Machiavellian acts as the Duke of Gloucester. Indeed, politics on both sides of the Atlantic is fraught at the moment: politicians using dangerous rhetoric to work their way up the cursus honorum is becoming more familiar to see. Furthermore, having visited the Richard III exhibition in Leicester, the glass floor covering where he was buried (which you can walk on I might add!) matches the glass floor covering the pit in Hildegard Betchler’s design. It’s as if the production is being played out on top of his grave, adding to the palpable sense of fact and fiction, history and the present in tension with each other, just as science, history and literature merged (as Goold states in the programme) in the excavation of the dead king.
Goold’s production is modern set in that most of the characters are dressed in smart black and there are mobile phones and guns. But amongst that there are anachronisms: the throne and king’s attire seem period, as does the armour in which characters fight. But Goold denies an exact sense of setting, instead letting the production resonate with us in terms of its contemporary echoes as well as its literary and historical roots.
Fiennes’ last two stage roles have been fairly cerebral, something which he lends to his Gloucester but he can also be strong and threatening. He double takes when Buckingham suggests he is effeminate. He licks the blood of the beheaded Hastings and rubs it in his hair. He is aware of his barriers but is confident he will conquer those in his way and laughs in the face of those in the audience that may doubt him. His broad smile is reminiscent of Farage’s and he says ‘tut’ in such a tellingly sarcastic way. He knows his talents have no limits.
The women, however, don’t fare well in this production. In one scene, horrific to watch, Richard rapes Queen Elizabeth. It may emphasise his desperation for power, but really it feels gratuitous as his downfall of power is already in the text. What is also problematic about it is that it is the first time in the play when we see Richard be actively violent; mostly he dishes the murders out to his henchman. Elsewhere in the play, Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Margaret is not the vicious old hag she could be played as but instead a frail woman whose life has been tormented by murdered loved ones. She wanders the stage as she prophesises Richard’s future, clutching a doll in a mournful and maternal way. When Richard clutches its head, she gasps as if it was real. Still, she may be a soothsayer when it comes to the fate of Gloucester but she’s by no means won. It is a nice touch though for her to pass on the doll to Elizabeth, hinting that her life is to be spent lamenting her lost loved ones too.
The casting of Tom Canton as Richmond, England’s saviour, is particularly clever. Instead of resembling any politician we might hope to look up to, he is a knight in shining armour, a sort of Alfie Boe in Les Mis type, some may say almost too good to be true. Finbar Lynch as a rather cool, quietly ambitious Buckingham is impressive as is James Garnon as Hastings. He is surprisingly collected as he straightens his papers and lowers his head to a chopping block as he warns ‘Miserable England!/ I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee’.
Betchler’s set makes much of the Almeida’s stage, being both a muddy battle field and courtly chamber. The skulls of Richard’s enemies, lit up like trophies, are particularly effective. Adam Cork’s sound design cranks up the (sometimes lacking) tension and momentum and Jon Clark’s low lighting enables characters to lurk in the shadows. Overall, Fiennes’ Richard is not a portrait or caricature but chillingly familiar to real life politicians and Goold’s production brings out the contemporary relevancies in the play whilst acknowledging its links with history and as a piece of fiction.
Richard III plays at the Almeida until 6th August and is screened in cinemas on 21st July.