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FringeReview UK 2016

Richard III

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Almeida Theatre


Low Down

An Almeida production of Richard III led by Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Engel, Finbar Lynch and Aislin McGuckin. Rupert Goold directs a relatively uncut text; design by Hildegard Bechtler.


Rupert Goold directs a condensation of historical epic in the Almeida’s space: a Richard III led by Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Engel, Finbar Lynch and Aislin McGuckin. Designed with elegant Spartan clarity by Hildegard Bechtler, it features an excavation pit often open for everything to drop in. A vast crown’s suspended with light above like a basilica, and skulls slowly added to the pile on the back wall like something out of Pol Pot.


It’s 2012 and 1471-83; the production’s enveloped with the flurry and archeological zeal attending Richard III’s discovery, including holding aloft the S of Richard’s deformed spine. This allows the trope of pit as pivotal dispatch of everyone at key moments though other significance is lost.


Fiennes begins utterly straight, and bar pointing to the light for ‘this sun of York’ almost flat-lines his opening soliloquy: a humourless psychopath sudden with fury when thwarted, with none of the chuckling glint and quicksilver shade we associate with Richard, and little acting-up brio.


Fiennes is consistent projecting reined-in menace, release of anger held in check for key moments or key faux passes as when he orders Hastings’ arrest or plays with the princes, wincing off their affront to his dignity, though only just with an overt warning: ‘So wise so young, they say, do ne’er live long’. Fiennes throughout wreaks a man sado-pathically concerned to give his victims notice of their deaths.


Fiennes can relish light touches – tossing his crown onto the throne’s gothic spike. In one moment, ushering the interval, his delight memorably overcomes him. After feigned humility to crown-demanding crowds he snarls raising a fist to us like Arturo Ui.


If Fiennes, set and costumes are matt – contemporary but as with the machine guns period slides back and we get armour and swords at the end – the women are anything but. Susan Engel as Duchess of York delivers ringing stentorian authority in damning her son, and Aislin McGuckin explodes round the stage with grief, fury, pleading and fully-dimensioned agony as her family’s gradually torn from her. There’s also modulation and variety in her performance from terror at her husband’s health, through descent from queenly roar through fleeting gentleness to ashen prostration. For in this production too the shocking apex of Richard’s misogyny arrives when he rapes her into seeming submission demanding her daughter replace the wife he’s conveniently murdered, hauled off to death.


This is Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne, at first spirited and vehemently spitting but finally slapped in the face as Richard’s ferocious wooing nakedly shows he cows rather than flatters women into submission. Before her final terrified appearance – Richard again openly declares his doom to his victims and we register her appalled knowledge – she more easily drops into that terrible empathy with Engel, Redgrave and McGuckin.


It’s Redgrave who hands McGuckin the doll child she’s cradled all this while in a sotto voce version of Queen Margaret’s usual damnations. Here she’s more distrait than soi-disant destroying, sad in her pronouncements of the women’s fate, an implacable and implacably sad weaver of ends. McGuckin’s Elizabeth accepts this, clutching the doll herself till Richard makes to bite its face off in a final show of what women mean to him: spat-out mannequins.


Not of course that men fare better. Lynch engraves the firm-voiced, comet-witted loyal fixer Buckingham, who seems to understand Richard’s misogyny in using the word ‘effeminate’ to artificially induce his acceptance of the crown before the London populace. Richard’s look suggests he’s overstepped the mark. So when Buckingham baulks at killing boy-princes he sees his own doom more swiftly than the unctuous Hastings (James Garnon, all smarm and privilege): his only chance is switching sides. Mark Hadfield, hired killer persuaded by Clarence doubles as another henchman: in whom he invests real dimension. Tom Canton, with gravelly authority as Brackenbury, Keeper of Clarence shines forth as a clarion Richmond to believe in at the end. Scott Handy too is given space as Clarence to enunciate his dream and gentleness, his fair persuasive words believable scope.


In fact all the dreams are allowed breath here; Goold’s clarity and pacing ensures three hours plus never drags. Rationales are mostly clear, characters keenly-drawn in this sprawling drama cluttered with roles. It’s a Richard III to relish for its spacious reading of those mired within a scalding crown.


All circle that hollowing pit many topple into, but which marks the muted brilliance of Fiennes’ Richard. Fiennes possesses a chilling centripetal power but – surprisingly for him – little self-delight. Shakespeare’s Richard is amongst other things a master of ceremonies, and these shadows he conjures for us would sometimes overshadow Fiennes but for his black hole of an identity, as well as the one he too topples into.