Richard III, Almeida

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

The Rupert Goold production of Richard III for the Almeida Theatre in Islington begins by recreating the archaeological excavation of said monarch’s grave in a Leicester car park, including damaged skull and spine exhibiting severe curvature.  The play finishes with Richard occupying the self same grave as his living enemies take revenge at Bosworth Fields, where he is found centuries later.

In-between these two events we are presented with a darkly gothic telling of this partly historical, partly fictional tragedy, the tragedy being that if you set out to be a villain then your sins will eventually find you out.  Richard lies, cheats and murders his way to power, disowns those who were loyal to him, and ultimately pays the price.  He is the original anti-hero, a villain through choice and in this production making no bones about it (no pun intended.)  His eventual end, hoist on his own petard and killed in battle in the self same grave is no less than he deserves, maybe better.

Like Scrooge, he is visited by ghosts – not that Scrooge actually had any of the ghosts visiting him put to death,   but the principle is similar.  Unlike Scrooge, he tells us, the audience, the brutal truth, as if we were his father confessors, maybe even his god, though his only real explanation is that he wished to compensate for being “rudely stamped” – a cripple.

“And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, —
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

In reality, it is not hard to see that power is the aphrodisiac and once he got a whiff of it, nothing could stop Richard, not even the innocence of victims like the Princes in the Tower (allowing for the fact that Shakespeare’s explanation is convenient for his play but by no means proven in reality.)

The Almeida is a perfect theatre for intimate dramas, aided by the beautiful curved brick backlit backdrop to a fairly plain stage with perspex panels covering the grave site, used at regular intervals.  The throne and chairs for courtiers are located at the rear of the stage, sometimes screened by metallic chain-drapes of the type you used to see across the entrance to butcher’s shops.  Among the most effective furnishings are tables, used cunningly for various purposes, best of which is the place of execution for the unfortunate Hastings.

While the battle scenes are traditional, right down to the armour and swords, the bulk of the play is in modern dress, finely tailored suits and natty shirt-tie combinations included. Most costumes tend towards the black, in-keeping with Goold’s chosen dark theme.  The modernity runs to mobile phones too (“What news abroad?” asks Richard of Hastings, the latter tapping a text on his Blackberry.)

As we first see the hunchbacked Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, he seems almost amiable, understated.  He performs his most famous speech almost casually, as if he were reciting the football scores for anyone who missed them:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

But gradually he ratchets up the cripple to a forensic intensity of passion matched by Queen Elizabeth in the coruscating yet flirtatious scene  which in this version ends with the increasingly paranoid Richard brutally raping Aislin McGuckin‘s Elizabeth – shocking yet somehow within character, since we know then that no horror is beyond him, even as his powers flag and his popularity wanes.

The cast is hot stuff, appropriate for a hot night. Their fluency helped keep the flying tempo of this production, which momentum is critical for a play that is an edgy thriller and a rise-and-fall fable with a morally satisfying ending.  I was especially drawn to James Garnon‘s Hastings, whose blabber is well and truly ghasted at his sudden downfall and the impromptu loss of his head, and Finbar Lynch‘s staunch Buckingham, railing against his unaccountable betrayal by Richard – surely the monarch’s greatest mistake.

It’s a joy to see Fiennes reunited with the estimable Vanessa Redgrave, with whom he formed a memorable partnership in their excellent and compelling film adaptation of Coriolanus.  There she steals the show with exuberance and pathos, but as an outwardly frail Queen Margaret she has comparatively few opportunities to demonstrate her sheer vitality – though when she does there are few actors who can match her for clarity or finely wrought emotional vigour, even dressed in a boiler suit.  You could not fail to pity Margaret cradling a dead child in the form of a doll, though she retains a hint of nobility.

This is a muscular production, one with clout and energy.  It is contemporary and relevant, up to the minute when we see our current leaders cloaked in ambition speaking with a subtext that can be lifted whole from Richard’s schizophrenic and self-loathing soliloquy, the counterpart to his narcissistic personality and on a par with Claudius’s “O my offence is rank” speech:

“What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty! guilty!”
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?”

Recommended, though you may struggle to get tickets.

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