'Richard III': Theater Review

Richard III with Ralph Fiennes-EMBARGOED TIL 11pm 16 June-H 2016
Courtesy of Marc Brenner
A polished interpretation with uncomfortable contemporary resonance.

Ralph Fiennes gets the hump as Shakespeare's nastiest villain, with support from Vanessa Redgrave as a queen driven mad by grief in this latest production from director Rupert Goold.

It's a shame the Almeida Theatre Company's solid, effective and sinister production of Richard III is slated to finish its run Aug. 6 since, with its emphasis on bones, skulls and ghosts, it would make a perfect seasonal choice for Halloween. Featuring Ralph Fiennes in the title role and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret (the two last appeared together in Fiennes' own contemporary film adaptation of Coriolanus), director Rupert Goold's production borrows more than a little of its vernacular from horror films and the theater of shock. He seldom gets his own hands dirty, but this Richard is a psychopath by proxy, as if Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger had learned how to delegate.   

Just to underscore the horror-film parallels, there's lots of ghoulish lighting, ample bloodletting and even sudden amplified bursts of noise and blinding light designed to jolt audience members out of their seats. A pre-show prologue of sorts, set in 2012, sees archeologists in face masks and forensic clothing disinterring Richard III's bones — fragments at first and then a mahogany skull and an 'S'-shaped spine — from their car-park grave in Leicester, observed by the rest of the cast in modern dress as a piped-in news report explains their significance. And everyone knows no good can come from disturbing ancient burial grounds.

The murders may have happened in the past, but Jan Morrell's mostly modern costumes (shiny armor comes out in the last battle scenes) and designer Hildegard Bechtler's sparse, exposed-brick industrial-chic set suggest a past not all that far behind us. Sure, compared to the very specific late-1970s time frame for the recent production across town at the Trafalgar Studios, the temporal setting here is a lot more vague. But subtle clues suggest the 1980s, judging by the double-breasted jacket worn by Fiennes' Richard over his prosthetic hunchback and Steve Jobs-style black turtleneck, as well as the boiler suit Redgrave’s Margaret wears for her few big scenes, suggestive of the utilitarian protest-wear worn by the feminists at the Greenham Common peace camp back in the day.

Certainly, this is a production that lays particular emphasis on the women's roles and takes trouble to feel their pain, especially that of bereaved wives and mothers. Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) isn't seduced by Richard for a second, she just gives up railing against him and submits, exhausted from fighting him off. Later, he rapes Elizabeth (Aislin McGuckin, terrific) in the onstage grave, as if that's the final bit of persuasion needed to coerce her into letting him marry her one surviving child. Sexual violence is just another weapon in his arsenal, along with the needle-thin rapier hidden in his cane.

Fiennes' take on the character is not to make him in any way charming, although the actor's irrepressible comic skills generate laughs, for example when he pretends in jest to attack the young princes, like he was "just kidding." Under the layers of dissemblance, he's not kidding at all. Nor is he any kind of a sympathetic victim of a superficial, beauty-obsessed culture that demonizes disability. This Richard is just a very nasty piece of work, through and through.

One school of scholarly thought for a while maintained that the real, historical Richard might not have been a hunchback at all; that all that was just propaganda designed to malign his reputation, because in the medieval mindset, physical deformity is synonymous with moral deformity. The discovery of his twisted corpse put paid to that theory, and by foregrounding the evidence in the show it is as if the production is returning full circle to an older interpretation of Richard's malignancy. Like his scoliosis, his evil is bred in the bone.

Certainly, the staging by Goold (recently represented on Broadway with King Charles III and American Psycho, both of which originated at the Almeida) has a gothic touch. On the set’s back wall, skulls appear after each death, like death heads on a plane's fuselage during wartime, marking each kill. The cast is almost entirely clad in black or shades of dun and dark, all the better to make the red gloves worn by the murderers pop when they don them before killing the Duke of Clarence (Scott Handy). Later, the golden throne and crown glint darkly, like tarnished prizes that hardly look worth all the bother they’ve caused.

However, the play's political analysis still resonates, despite all the creepshow trappings. Surely James Garnon's mannerisms and verbal style as Lord Hastings intentionally evoke Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K.'s right-wing anti-immigration party UKIP. As Richard turns against his supporters and they form alliances and plots against him, it's impossible not to see an allegory of what's going on now with party politics on both sides of the Atlantic, especially given that the play is opening a week before Britain votes on whether to stay in the European Union.

There's civil war afoot, one that's erupting with real outbreaks of violence, both in the U.K. and America during this election year. Press night for Richard III just happened by a chilling twist of fate to fall on the same night that Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who, according to early reports, may be a far-right extremist. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer …

Venue: Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, David Annen, Joseph Arkley, Tom Canton, Daniel Cerqueira, Simon Coates, Susan Engel, James Garnon, Mark Hadfield, Scott Handy, Finbar Lynch, Aislin McGuckin, Joseph Mydell, Joshua Riley, Lukas Rolfe, Joanna Vanderham, Baxter Westby, Oliver Whitehouse
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Rupert Goold
Set designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume designer: Jon Morrell
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Movement consultant: Anna Morrissey
Fight director: Terry King
An Almeida Theatre production