My last Shakespeare play was the naff Irish stew version of TAMING OF THE SHREW so I was slightly worried what the Almeida's RICHARD III would offer up. The Almeida is too keen on re-imaginings for it's own good but I really need not have worried, Rupert Goold has a firm grasp on the play and where he has strayed into the dangerous marshes of Director Theatre it at least is valid and frames the play in an interesting way.
Goold's production starts (and ends) with the excavation in the Leicester car park which reveals the skull of Richard III, his sword and finally his mis-shapen spine to a curious crowd of onlookers, the light fades out on this scene and slowly come up again, revealing Ralph Fiennes at the back of the stage, the skeleton made flesh. I thought it actually worked, it ties in those recent events to a seemingly long-ago tale of political corruption and murder.
At over 3 hours, the production should feel long but it really doesn't as Goold keeps the action moving ever-forward. I have seen previous productions which seemed to hit the buffers whenever Richard was not on stage but here nothing is allowed to get in the way of Shakespeare's thundering plot.
The modern-dress production has a simple set from Hildegard Bechtler - a semi-circular set of steps, sweeping curtains made of chains and a see-through stage over Richard's ignoble resting-place - which is a perfect setting for Goold's spare, stripped-down production; a spooky addition being spotlit silver skulls which appear on the back wall for every murder Richard sanctions.
Ralph Fiennes was magnificent as Richard, inhabiting the role with a slippery ease, turning on a groat from charming someone to do his bidding to cold-blooded sociopath. He is such a skillful actor he didn't just play Richard as a monster but as someone who almost was cast in the role of villain from birth, the scene where his mother pours venom on him sees Fiennes slumped in a chair avoiding her gaze, you suspect he's heard it all before from her. It was a performance of quicksilver cunning and intelligence, even when he was feigning piety to secure backing for his claim to be King, his mask slipped noticeably when Buckingham called him effeminate.
It's a world where people are only aware of Richard's murderous intent just as they are about to be (literally) stabbed in the back but there is only one person who knows how evil Richard is and that's the haunted and haunting Queen Margaret, the last living member of the deposed Royal family. Here the ravaged Margaret of Anjou is played wonderfully by Vanessa Redgrave and Goold casting her in this role really lifts the character from being just a mere supporting character. Although in only two scenes, Margaret haunts the play and the other characters.
In her first scene she curses all present that they know the depths of Richard's evil and one by one, as they suddenly face their destiny, Margaret's words come back to haunt them. Vanessa's Margaret is dressed in dishevelled fatigues suggesting she has not changed since the Battle of Tewkesbury where her son was killed, and carries a damaged baby doll that Richard at one point smothers to her horror. In a nice touch, when Margaret reappears to reproach the grieving Queen Elizabeth after the murder of her own children, Margaret leaves her battered baby doll with her, it's Elizabeth who must mourn a dead son. As always, Vanessa was never less than thrilling.
They are complemented by other fine performances: Finbar Lynch was excellent as Buckingham, Richard's 'fixer' whose political double-dealing made the play all the more topical in these post-Brexit times, Scott Handy was very good as Clarence and made his speech of drowning all too real, James Garnon's Hastings was the very model of a careerist politician, always checking his Twitter account until it's too late, and Tom Canton was a suitably virile presence as Richard's nemesis Richmond.
Aislín McGuckin's Queen Elizabeth was suitably tigerish until she too is broken by Richard - Goold has him rape her in their final confrontation where he demands her daughter as his new wife. This was the only directorial choice that I am unsure about although it certainly fits in with Elizabeth's sudden capitulation towards the end of the scene. Susan Engel was exquisite as Richard's mother, The Duchess of York - her denunciation of him towards the end of the play was played with a marvellous delivery of fire and ice. Interestingly Engel had played Queen Elizabeth in the famous RSC cycle of the War Of The Roses plays in 1963.
On 21st July RICHARD III will be the first Almeida Theatre production to be screened live in cinemas (although some filming will take place in performances before that) - I recommend it highly as the production is sold out for all performances at the theatre.