Another summer made glorious by a Duke of York…we have, in recent times, seen Richard III from Kevin Spacey, Mark Rylance, Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch and the astonishing Hans Keating (in Kings of War). Now it is the turn of Ralph Fiennes, who gives the kind of electrifying, intense and cerebral performance, vicious and witty, that dispels any winter, or summer, of discontent.
It’s an excavation site. Suitably qualified people are fussily examining the dig, scientists no doubt. A small, local crowd gathers. Then the BBC announces where we are and what they are doing: excavating the body of the real Richard III from a car park, a place where a woman had a presentiment that his body might be buried.
It’s Shakespeare, so the image of a skull raised high is potent. But, of course, that’s the other play. The gathered crowd of Leicester locals are excited. The BBC report carries on. Then, surprisingly, one of the excavators lifts high a part of a deformed spine. He holds it carefully, examining it, revealing it to all in the somber light. Somehow, it is both the proof and the pudding.
Darkness. Slivers of misty obscurity make impossible seeing him clearly. But he is there, in the darkness, at home in the shadows. He sits awhile, staring out. Then scuttles and stumbles forward, determined, focused and wily. He barks the great opening speech with righteous precision, subtle derision and lip-smacking cohesion.
He embraces the character’s deformity. We know from the archaeological dig that his spine is curved, but that is just the beginning. One leg is mishappen, curving in obvious pain; the right arm is withered and bent, the hand horribly misshapen, mostly gloved. There is a hump, but worse than that, the sharp ridges of the curved spine press out against the skin of his back, Alien-like. Pain seems to encase every part of him; it seeps from every pore.
But that is not the worst of it. His eyes are alive with venomous rage, calculating fury and dishevelled despair; his thin lips can dance from rictus grimace to supercilious arrogance to desolate isolation to rat cunning in a heartbeat, usually someone else’s.
Like a matryoshka doll, his layers of vengeful pride and ingrained humiliation nestle inside each other, hiding the soft, broken interior, and presenting a cold, uncaring, capricious and ardent lust for power. He is the living embodiment of terrorism borne out of hatred and difference.
This is Ralph Fiennes, easily the most convincing, terrifying, tragic, sometimes funny, but utterly complete Richard III one could imagine, certainly in this century (so far, anyway).
Rupert Goold’s exemplary staging of Shakespeare’s final history play, which opened this evening at the Almeida Theatre, is a bold and provocative achievement. It grabs your attention from the out, surprises you along the way, and delivers a painful punch, or series of punches, as Act Two plays out. Genuinely, this is a thrilling telling of a tale almost as old as time.
Hildegard Bechtler’s scenic design is deceptive. It seems oddly sparse, but actually it is exactly perfect for Goold’s intent. A huge circle is suspended from the ceiling – a crown of sorts; the prize for which everyone fights and dies under.
At the rear, a curtain of beads separates a raised area where the golden throne is housed; the beads provide the opportunity for a haunting effect – you cannot quite see what is behind them depending upon what Jon Clark’s immaculate lighting permits. Skulls are embedded in the wall behind the throne, a constant reminder of what sitting on that throne has cost.
The excavation site sets the mood for the production. It’s modern, but steeped in history. (As are Jon Morrell’s mandarin of power costumes) Goold excavates the text, digging for the truest meaning, the clearest readings, the tangible realities. Bechtler reflects all this perfectly: the excavation site becomes a makeshift grave for those murdered at Richard’s decree as well as, inevitably, his own final resting place.
Across the front of the stage, a glass box, filled with earth from the dug-up grave sits silently, begging for inspection, reminding that this is a museum piece of sorts. A movable floor covers and uncovers the grave-site – history can be covered up, forgotten; lessons that should be learnt are not.
Fiennes is riveting throughout, giving a performance of rare intensity, wholehearted physicality and brutal, but mercurial, passion. There are so many superb moments: licking the blood from an execution block; the display of his invidious, deformed hand, a moment both tortuous and bitingly sad; the snarling cat-fight with his mother, the Duchess of York; the moments when the talking stops but the mind whirls; the insidious seduction of Lady Anne; the gleeful engagement of Tyrrel to slaughter the princes in the Tower; the shark-like attack on the grieving Queen Elizabeth to secure her young daughter’s hand in marriage; the explosive stillness; the icy dismissal of once-loyal Buckingham; the surprising skill and dexterity with the sword in the final battle.
Not a moment is wasted, not an action or movement ill-judged or unnecessary. In every way, Fiennes gives a masterclass – both in Shakespearean performance and in bravura complete characterisation.
His handling of the language is superb. Phrases soar with specific meaning, motivation and inclination, clear and strong. There is as much gentleness as there is erupting violence, and the sudden mood swings, the furious rasping rants, and the wily erudition, all of which are found clearly in Shakespeare’s text, make Fiennes’ speeches and quips and berating commands endlessly mesmerising.
What is most remarkable about Fiennes’ performance is that he manages to evoke a degree of empathy, if not outright sympathy, for the plight of his Richard. You really feel the patriot who wants to end wars and in-fighting, the badly treated little boy who has sat in the corner abused, neglected, hated for most of his life, desperate for the warm embrace of his mother or the gentle hand of friendship upon his back. Fiennes does not opt for a comical Richard or a black and villainous Richard – rather, he opts for a real Richard, a man fused out of hatred and indifference who is willing to kill to get his way and make things better as he sees it.
If Goold was seeking to make a point about terrorism in the modern world, his Richard III gives you pause. Real pause. Especially on the day a hard-working MP was gunned down in the street in London and the week the worst homophobic terrorist attack in the western world occurred in Orlando.
You can’t help but thinking that Goold was trying to make an analogy – because he removes a lot of the irony from the production (usually a bliss point in Richard III) and makes Richard a hateful misogynist. His rape of Queen Elizabeth (a Goold innovation) as part of his tormenting of her is the high-water mark of this, but it follows from his hideous rape-in-marriage of Lady Anne, who is forced to marry him or die, and then is murdered anyway. Tolerance has no part in this world and, as a result, Richard’s final reckoning with Richmond seems entirely just.
The performances from the women in the cast are uniformly excellent and not by the book. Aislin McGuckin is wonderful as the bitter Queen Elizabeth who has been deposed by her hated nemesis, the bottled spider. Her shrieks of pain tear a hole in her soul as she laments the death of her princes. Passionate, calculating and bristling with energy, McGuckin gives as good as she gets, and this makes Fiennes’ rape of her all the more unpardonable, inexcusable and horrifically shocking. Was it necessary? No. Too much Games of Thrones influence mayhap?
Joanna Vanderham is terrific as the grieving Lady Anne and she becomes a lost, abused and near demented creature, trapped by the tragic hand Richard forces upon her. She knows she will die eventually and the crumpling realisation is superbly portrayed. When she is led off to her doom, her eyes display relief while her body braces itself. She holds her own against Fiennes very convincingly in the was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Regal and utterly appalled at the misdeeds of her rooting hog offspring, Susan Engel was quite superb as the Duchess of York. Pain, fatigue, despair and intolerant anger were etched into her face; her every move was a stumble against a whirlwind of horror of her own creation. Her denunciation of Fiennes’ monarch was blistering, and you watched the pain tear into his very being, even as rage overtook him in retaliation. Engel’s wretched final departure was moving and inevitable; the culmination of an intelligent performance of royal grace.
Queen Margaret is often played as a maniacal old witch, an insane creature, witless and wandering, lost in the past, incidental to the plot, and repulsed by the present. Vanessa Redgrave found an entirely different way to enliven her and it was both remarkable and exciting to witness.
Softer, more dementia sufferer than asylum fodder, her Queen Margaret is a refreshing take on an older monarch despairing of what has happened to the world she and her husband once ruled. She carries a stuffed-toy child substitute with her and fantasises about the crown. Her sense of loss is palpable, deep and true. Her Margaret is key to understanding much of the play.
The scene where she, Engel and McGuckin are alone on stage, discussing their lot, was more arresting than I have ever seen it – and often that scene, Act Four Scene Four, is cut. With these women, you wouldn’t want to miss it.
Tom Canton makes a good enough fist of Richmond and Finbar Lynch is crisp and bureaucratic as Buckingham – the moment when he finally realises the full extent of Richard’s insanity is well conveyed, and he dies beautifully.
Elsewhere, there is strong support from Scott Handy (Clarence), Simon Coates (Bishop of Ely), James Garnon (Hastings), Daniel Cerqueira (Catesby) and David Annen (Edward IV, Tyrrel). Each speak Shakespeare’s words with understanding and feeling and a true sense of character.
There are, however, much less successful performances, where the language and the delivery never connect. Mark Hadfield’ Ratcliffe, Joseph Arkley’s Rivers and Joseph Mydell’s Stanley were disappointing in this respect.
In the programme, Goold states that the discovery of the skeleton of the real Richard III “was a moment where history, literature and science intersected, a tension that provided a foundation for this production“. Perhaps. But that tension does not really translate in Goold’s production.
Still, there are two moments that will haunt; the moments that end each Act. In the first, Fiennes holds up a clenched fist, silently and slowly, a mark of what is to come following his duplicitous antics in rejecting the crown in order to secure it.
In the second, it is the bright, beaming light from a spotlight at the excavation site: one that burns into your heart and asks you whether the events of Richard III, fictional, but loosely based on real historical events, contain anything to make you stop and take stock.
And, of course, they surely do.
For details of screenings and booking information for the Almeida Theatre Live broadcast of Richard III, check local cinema listings or visit live.almeida.co.uk.