Richard III used to be known as Shakespeare’s pantomime villain. A king so evil and murderous that he was almost a pastiche of a tyrant and despot. Reigning for just two years he was dispatched on the battlefield with a blow to the head and sword wounds contemptuously inflicted to the derriere.
And then the remains of the odious, “hunch-backed toad,” were discovered under a council car park in Leicester (supernaturally signposted by a large ‘R’ painted on the tarmac) and his reputation swung, in an instant, from notoriety and infamy to ignominy and embarrassment.
Ralph Fiennes does a superb job of restoring his reputation in Rupert Goold’s riveting production of Richard III which opened on Thursday at London’s Almeida Theatre.
Goold uses the recent discovery of Richard’s bones to bookend the play and it works marvellously as a framing device.
As the audience files into the theatre there are archaeologists excavating and examining bones in a hole on the stage. A moment before the production gets under way one man pulls out the trophy find – an (astonishingly) complete, and very crooked, skeleton of a spine.
It is a very effective reminder that this was once a real man whose life was dictated, and fashioned, by the hideous deformity of his physique.
Grotesquely misshapen he resents the success of others in finding love and position while he has an unearned title, Duke of Gloucester.
Richard decides that he is going to play the hand fate has dealt him. “Deformed, unfinished” he describes himself. “So lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me.”
“Since I cannot prove a lover I am determined to prove a villain.”
Fiennes limps slowly to the front of the stage, dragging a useless right leg behind him. His right arm hangs by his side, the hand horribly withered and hidden in a black glove, and his s-shaped spine, clearly defined by a tight-fitting polo-neck, gives him a reptilian appearance. For a nano-second – and no more – you feel sorry for him.
It is a masterful performance of evil personified and the actor’s soliloquies are chilling to listen to even when he appears playful. Misogynistic, callous, cruel and calculating, we’re mesmerised by the fixed stare, the arrogance and a steely grimace as he reveals a ruthless ambition.
A ghoulish trophy wall slowly fills with skulls as, one by one, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, dispatches two brothers, a pair of nephews, and his opponents in a lust for power.
The women in Richard III fall into two camps. His elders, who he seems powerless to control, and the younger women, Anne and his sister-in-law Elizabeth, who are there to be taken and abused before being disposed of.
His mother, Susan Engel’s Duchess of York, isn’t beyond giving her wayward son a stiff talking to – and he squirms at the chastisement which he must accept. His acquiescence is comical.
More unsettling is the grandstanding by Vanessa Redgrave’s demented Queen Margaret. She shuffles on stage, cradling a filthy doll, and brings the entire production to a halt as she attempts to warn everyone of Richard’s cunning.
Joanna Vanderham, as Lady Anne, and Aislin McGuckin as a fellow widow, Elizabeth, give strong, physical performances but suffer cruelly under Richard (McGuckin’s fight with Fiennes looked painful and very realistic).
Finbar Lynch is always watchable. His turn as Richard’s fixer, Buckingham, is finely nuanced revealing the duke to be as hungry for power and riches as his master.
Goold has assembled a polished company, which includes Scott Handy as Richard’s doomed brother, Clarence, James Garnon as the city boy Hastings (complete with mobile phone) and Tom Canton as the muscular Richmond.
Mark Hadfield and Daniel Cerqueira serve as Richard’s henchmen who both show a dedication to their trade.
The modern dress production mixes text messages, mobiles and firing squads with ye olde armour, axes and swordplay yet, surprisingly, it all works.
This is very much Fiennes’ show. Richard’s mental instability is captured in a powerful and frenzied performance as paranoia fuels a murderous rampage.
On Bosworth Field the villainous king suddenly develops a spring in his step. Gone is the lameness as the actor leaps about the stage, enthusiastically wielding a sword, and taking on all-comers.
This is a dark, engrossing and energetic production that keeps your attention for more than three hours – and you still don’t want it to end.
Richard III runs at the Almeida Theatre until August 6 and, if you can’t get tickets, then the production will be the theatre’s first live broadcast, going out to cinemas everywhere on July 21.
Ralph Fiennes is at his villainous best in Richard III, Shakespeare’s murderous king now more famous for being found under a car park than his reign of terror.