I have never devoted much time to Shakespeare’s history plays. When given the choice between the Bard’s real and fictional kings, I instinctively opt for the latter. Yet, despite my broader reservations, Richard III has always intrigued me; the first time I read the play, his curved back, seductive rhetoric and malevolent deeds captured the darkest recesses of my imagination. Naturally, then, when the Almeida announced their prestigious new production, with Ralph Fiennes in the title role, I happily spent a lengthy period on hold with the box office, desperate to secure a ticket. Thanks to their Under 25s scheme, I got lucky.
It takes a remarkable production to make three and a half hours of classical theatre feel like half that time. Fortunately, that’s exactly what director Rupert Goold achieves here, with the help of an outstanding cast and creative team.
Goold has never been afraid to rip up the rulebook when it comes to staging Shakespeare. His Macbeth (2007, Chichester Festival Theatre) evoked both Soviet oppression and Tarantinoesque savagery, while critics were divided over his 2009 production of King Lear (Old Vic), set in Northern England in the 1970s. Here, the staging is both timely and timeless, beginning and ending with Richard’s recently discovered grave in that – now infamous – Leicester car park. With the help of a gliding glass floor, the characters circle round, walk over and fall into the muddy pit as the play progresses. As we watch Richard’s bloody ascent to power, the shadow of his death gapes at him from the floor and the skulls of his victims stare accusingly from the walls. Innovative use of light and shadow and an oppressive soundscape add to the sense of foreboding that builds throughout the production.
Fiennes plays Richard with a creeping, Machiavellian intelligence and a nihilist streak. His Richard doesn’t seem to care about royal trappings; his desire for power comes from a sadistic need to punish those around him – if he can be bothered to keep them alive long enough to make it worth his while. At times, his delivery is so casual that key lines veer dangerously close to becoming throwaways, but, in Fiennes’ hands, this conversational, reasonable tone becomes deeply unsettling. Fiennes’ masterstroke is to illuminate how Richard’s contrariness becomes a significant tool in his manipulation; his self-aware asides are both darkly humorous and streaked with self-loathing; his calm exterior belies the anger that simmers beneath the surface. Despite the well-known twists and turns of the story, Goold and Fiennes succeed in creating a character whose evil instincts still have the power to shock.
The four women surrounding Richard form a haunting quartet, led by Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret. She, of course, has impeccable technique and a magnetic presence, injecting each word with quiet anguish. Her soft voice electrifies the stage, her every movement seems both carefully considered and entirely natural. It’s a privilege to watch her.
The rest of the cast is very strong. Aislin McGuckin beautifully portrays Queen Elizabeth’s traumatic emotional journey, in a performance that spans from cold and poised to painfully raw. Finbar Lynch is a charismatic Duke of Buckingham, with a swagger that lingers even on the eve of his execution, while Scott Handy shines as Duke of Clarence. His death scene is particularly difficult to stomach; his misplaced faith in his brother is genuinely moving. James Garnon plays Hastings as a bumbling fool, an over-privileged Westminster pawn with one eye glued to his iPhone. His naive confidence in his own political immunity turns to pitiful resignation when he finally realises he has fallen out of favour.
Under Goold’s direction, the play feels unnervingly fresh and relevant. The unabashed political pageantry that accompanies Buckingham’s public appeal to put Richard on the throne seems low key in the light of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Flotilla. We gasp and wince as Richard uses physical and sexual assault to control the women in his life, but it’s difficult to dismiss his cruelty as a relic of the distant past when similar cases are splashed across yesterday’s papers and trending on Twitter.
Richard III is currently sold out, but if you can prise a ticket out of someone’s hands, do so.