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Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at the Almeida Theatre – review round-up

Ralph Fiennes in Richard III. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.
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After giving Macbeth a Stalinist treatment and transporting the Merchant of Venice to Vegas, Rupert Goold’s Richard III is a more timeless production – placeless even – with mobile phones and double-breasted suit jackets worn alongside swords and suits of armour.

Opening with the excavation of Richard’s body from its resting place beneath a Leicester car park, this production presents Richard as less of a Shakespearean caricature, and more of a threat.

Ralph Fiennes takes the title role, making a quick return to the stage after recent outings at the Old Vic and National Theatre, with a supporting cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Finbar Lynch, Aislín McGuckin, Daniel Cerqueira, Simon Coates, Joseph Mydell, Joanna Vanderham, and Susan Engel. The set, dominated by huge overheard crown, is designed by Hildegard Bechtler. Costume is by Jon Morrell, sound by Adam Cork, and lighting by Jon Clark.

Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

Richard III – naked villainy

Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Goold’s production has rightly been interpreted by the critics within a current political context. This ranges from subtle nudges, such as Henry Hitchings’ (Evening Standard, ★★★★) “nagging sense that political ambition is underpinned by falsehood”, to more overt confrontations, such as from Steve Dineen (City AM, ★★★★★): “Richard III is the ideal play for these post-facts times, where rhetoric is no longer anchored to reality and fear is the prevailing political currency. Across the pond a demagogue threatens to hijack the US political system, barely even attempting to clothe his naked villainy. At home and abroad acts of unspeakable violence play out with crushing regularity in the name of fear and hatred. Not in recent memory have we been so close to the winter of our discontent.”

Although Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) “can’t help but feel this play should have a bit more to say”, others draw direct links to recent events. Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) mentions the “shocking death” of MP Jo Cox: “it was impossible not to feel the links between past and present; the way moral ugliness can sometimes prevail”.

Those writing for American publications have also taken the opportunity to explore and explain British politics through the lens of these performances. Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter) compares “James Garnon’s mannerisms and verbal style as Lord Hastings” to that of Nigel Farage, while Matt Trueman (Variety) finds parallels between the UKIP leader and Richard himself: “On a day in which one of the most ludicrous British politicians of recent times unveiled a poster campaign that directly echoed Nazi propaganda, the sight of a ‘smiling villain’ slipping into despotism is a chilling one. Fiennes slinks towards totalitarianism as Richard. He seems almost grandfatherly at first, with his stoop and stick. No one thinks to stop him before it’s far too late.”

Richard III – the son of hell

Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes in Richard III. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes in Richard III. Photo: Tristram Kenton

By all accounts, Fiennes’ Richard is not showy, or even overly comic. Henry Hitchings refers to him as a “malign business mogul”, while Sarah Crompton finds that he “masks his intent under the demeanor of a civil servant”. Leslie Felperin also sees him as a sinister chief executive: “He seldom gets his own hands dirty, but this Richard is a psychopath by proxy, as if Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger had learned how to delegate.”

Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) concedes that Fiennes “isn’t one of the great Richards”, but he does give credit for the years of experience playing villains on screen which have equipped him for the role: “He can dehumanise his gaze, chill with a reptilian smile. Vein-popping fury is a muscle-memory.”

For Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), it is toxic masculinity which lies at the centre of Fiennes’ portrayal. He “gives us a Richard for whom people, women especially, are playthings of his perverted will. But, while this reading is psychologically consistent and executed with Fiennes’s customary skill, it sacrifices Richard’s irony and duplicity.”

Richard III – dispute not with her

Ralph Fiennes and Aislin McGuckin in Richard III. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ralph Fiennes and Aislin McGuckin in Richard III. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The treatment of women in this production is certainly fraught with difficulty, even by Shakespearean standards. When Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) writes that “the misogyny that seems to stem from a lack of mother-love is expressed in a particularly brutal form here”, he is making a carefully coded reference to an act presented by this creative team despite not being in the text: Richard’s violent rape of Elizabeth. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) feels that the show is tarnished by this – “It’s a distressing scene to watch and the production doesn’t really make a case for its inclusion. It sours everything that follows” – Tracey Sinclair (Exeunt), echoes this, saying that it “adds a further sour tang to a show that already seems to have no idea what to do with its women,” while Andrzej Lukowski finds it “a shockingly nasty addition to the play – even the many deaths are pretty restrained by comparison”.

Billington’s assertion about Richard’s character seems to be upheld though, with several critics noting his steely reception to a light-hearted accusation of ‘effeminate remorse’. Matt Wolf (ArtsDesk, ★★★★★) compares him, with his “scalding contempt for womankind”, to “some better-spoken Donald Trump locked in perpetual combat with a sector of society that he can have only via coercion”.

But, while others show concern that the women onstage are lost, or at least done a disservice by this viciously misogynist Richard, Sarah Crompton is moved by the stoic sorrow of the female characters. In her review, Vanessa Redgrave turns “the curses of Queen Margaret into the meanderings of a woman driven mad by grief. When, near the close, she sits on the ground to mourn with Susan Engel’s Duchess of York and Aislin McGuckin’s grieving Elizabeth, you see women who have fought, lost and realised the cost. It is deeply affecting.”

Richard III – is it any good?

With star ratings at the upper end of the scale, including a couple of five stars, it seems this is another hit for the Almeida, albeit one with a few caveats. Michael Billington feels that this production “loses something of the play’s malign wit”, while Natasha Tripney and Paul Taylor join Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★) in complaining of sluggishness in places.

Interestingly though, the heaviness of the production need not always be viewed so negatively. For Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★★★), the show’s slow pace reflects that car park excavation right at its start: “Rupert Goold has made his name with productions that hurtle. But his Richard III drills stealthily down, like an archaeological dig. It is always hell here. And in watching the play, we are always watching ghosts.”

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