Richard III is a role has been taken on by a plethora of famous faces in recent years. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey to name just a few. In the Almeida’s newest production, Ralph Fiennes takes up the mantle in a menacing and macabre/comedic portrayal. It’s a stellar production, marred only by some questionable additions.
Richard III sees a man ‘determin’d to prove a villain’, set against brother, mother and nephews in his quest for the crown. Rupert Goold’s production transposes the action to a modern setting, so modern in fact it can be given a precise date and location. The play opens with a prologue of sorts, digging up the past before our eyes. A car park is now the site of an archaeological dig, where Richard’s remains were found in 2012. This grave remains on stage for the entire play, a constant presence and reminder of this ‘promised end’. Goold uses this setting as a framing device for the play, though its presence at the end feels clunky. As the final scene closes with the characters standing over the grave, a large industrial light is brought in to signify that we are back in the car park. This feels forced, making a visual connection despite the fact the audio connection of news reports does this. Equally clunky are the changes of scenes, at one point quite literally cutting off Fiennes mid speech. As for the set, the RSC called: bead curtains and similar frames are so last year. Literally, they did it for the King and Country Cycle earlier this year. Less than original, a cheap knock off.
While the framing device works to some extent, another addition works less so. Yet again, I find myself writing these words: why include a rape scene which is not featured in the original text? Act IV, scene 4 is a difficult scene to stage, characterisation wise. Elizabeth, a Queen who has just lost a husband and her two young sons, agrees to give her daughter to Richard for marriage. It’s a frankly unbelievable scenario and rarely have I seen it staged convincingly. Goold directs the scene brilliantly; Fiennes Richard can ‘not flatter and speak fair’ to win her to his cause and, therefore, is indeed villainous, menacing Aislin McGuskin’s Queen into the deed. They had me, for once I believed Elizabeth’s motivation here. But then they went too far. Richard rapes Elizabeth. It’s not needed, completely unnecessary and makes no sense. Richard III is a play which arguably shows the power of words, particularly when wielded by women:
Duchess of York:
If so, then be not tongue-tied: go with me.
And in the breath of bitter words let’s smother
My damnedson… (IV. 4)
Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
Why, then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses! (I. 3)
In a play which empowers women, showing their words can be as effective as swords, why diminish their power? The final image of the play sees the women stand over Richard’s grave, triumphant at the end. But through Goold’s version, they seem less victorious and more victims.
Fortunately, the acting saves this production, pushing a 3* up to 4*. Fiennes is terrifying, utilising the power of his words alone to win and wound his foes. His version of the Anne scene is pace perfect. Also laced into this interpretation is a sense of comedy. It’s s facet Rylance played up in the Globe’s production a few years ago, charming characters and audiences alike. Fiennes’ Richard though is unable to charm and ‘flatter’, and Fiennes is aware of this. He nods and winks to the audience, but is unable to do so with the other characters. The scene with the young prince arriving in London should be one of flattery; Fiennes ensures we see the true Richard even in this one. Vanessa Redgrave plays Margaret, bringing a quieter, calmer version of the queen. You do get a sense that this is a queen living past her time, wearied with the world. Though whether it’s Redgrave’s intent or because she too is tired is unclear.
Finbar Lynch shines as Buckingham in a performance which truly convinces me that he is indeed Richard’s equal, his ‘other self’. Interrupting the king and preempting his thoughts (save all but one), he is the best incarnation I have seen. Joanna Vanderham’s Anne is less than Richard’s equal, as their first scene together should show, though she does regain some power later in the play. James Garnon makes a memorable turn as Hastings, playing for laughs from his first to last lines. Glued to his phone, he checks ‘What news abroad’ and even plays the laughs in his death scene. It is McGuskin’s Queen Elizabeth though that steals the show and is the heart of the play. Her grief is truly poignant and yet reckless, engulfing the stage and truly showing the power of women’s words and the weight of them:
That I, being govern’d by the watery moon,
May send forth plenteous tears to drown the world
Verdict: a strong ensemble saves this production, which is so close to brilliant. Perhaps it too was ‘sent before [it’s] time’.