Hamlet may remain the prized part for the younger Shakespearean actor, and King Lear the Holy Grail for the older, but, for those aged in between, there’s no denying that Richard III still retains a strong attraction, as evidenced by the high-profile names – including Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch – who’ve taken on the role in recent years.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of the monarch as a charismatic villain, merrily murdering his way towards the throne, may send certain historians into a fit, but the role clearly remains as appealing to actors as the play itself does to audiences. The attraction lies in part, perhaps, in the way that Shakespeare makes Richard himself a performer, counterfeiting and pretending, and, at one point, essentially coaching his co-conspirator Buckingham in effective acting technique.
This emphasis on performance can turn the play into something of a pantomime; Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, arguably fell into this mode. But Rupert Goold’s excellent new production at the Almeida, which dynamically re-teams Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave after their previous collaborations in the films of The White Countess and Coriolanus, doesn’t take that route. There’s humour, certainly, in Fiennes’s witty delivery and in the memorable darkly comic performance of Daniel Cerqueira as the killer Catesby, coolly bringing out the block and axe to chop off the head of James Garnon’s Lord Hastings.
Yet, from Jon Morrell’s dark costumes to Hildegard Bechtler’s spare set to Jon Clark’s crepuscular lighting, this is a production that takes the play seriously and illuminates it in intelligent ways. A postmodernist framing device, referencing the 2013 discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a Leicester car-park, is striking but superfluous. Otherwise, though, the production, which mixes cell-phones and breastplates, offers a fine blending of the traditional and the contemporary.
At the centre, of course, is Fiennes, hunched and with his right side braced, his body seemingly at odds with itself yet frighteningly nimble when need be. Fiennes has always been a great actor, but in recent years his performances on both stage and screen (not least his superb, uninhibited turn in A Bigger Splash) have taken on a looser, riskier quality. Always exceptionally clear in his delivery, with an expert approach to the soliloquies, Fiennes does terrific, surprising things in this role: whether it’s mocking Rivers with a Cockney “What, marry, may she?”, letting out a bashful “Aw!” when it’s suggested that the throne might be his, making the line “Are you Tyrrell?" into a question for the audience, turning on Hastings with startling ferocity, or chillingly letting his mask of benevolence slip when Baxter Westby’s bound-for-the-Tower Prince Edward jumps on his back.
The dramatic face-offs with Joanna Vanderham’s strongly characterised Lady Anne and with Aislín McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, are particularly disturbing, Fiennes grabbing the crotch of the former and forcing the latter to the floor in a full-on sexual assault, before railing against “shallow, changing woman” in a moment that powerfully exposes the character’s violent misogyny.
Redgrave, always bold and inventive, makes something equally original of the mad prophetess Margaret. Boiler-suited and carrying a battered doll as the emblem of the character’s losses, she dispenses her curses with stealth rather than stridency, wiggling her finger as she refers to “the worm of conscience”, kissing and caressing the doll (and reacting with open-mouthed horror as Fiennes grabs its head) and, in a great moment, finally passing her mantle of insight and grief to McGuckin’s Elizabeth. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know”. Redgrave, in particular, embodies that understanding and knowledge here.
Although the production makes good use of the Almeida’s intimate space, Goold’s staging has some problems. The imperfect construction of the play leads to some awkward transitions, “The Citizens” scene feels under-directed, and a couple of the performances aren’t everything they might be: Susan Engel, for one, indulges in some surprising hamming as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Complaints about pace during the preview period may also have resulted in the ending now feeling rushed: the eve-of-Bosworth apparition scene is effectively and unfussily done, and Fiennes invests Richard's fractured final soliloquy with a compelling mixture of self-justification, self-hatred and vulnerability. Yet the battle itself, with blaring lights and a very weedy rain effect, feels somehow stilted, leading to a muted finale. Still, if Goold’s production doesn't match Propeller's amazing take on the play, it remains essential viewing, not least for the chance to see one of our finest actors at the very top of his game.
Richard III is booking at the Almeida until 6 August. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 21 July as the first “Almeida Live” broadcast.