Frankly, I resent the Almeida Theatre for living there. But occasionally something in their programming lures me over. And, Monday night in Islington or otherwise, if you can say no to Ralph Fiennes in the title role in Richard III then you’re a stronger and/or more stupid person than I am.
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Directed by Rupert Goold, owner of the best head of hair in theatre, and played largely in modern dress bar some pleasingly shiny armour this is a brutal and resonant production. It’s framed by short scenes depicting the discovery of Richard’s bones in Leicester a few years ago but, frankly, in this post-Brexit clusterfuck of a Britain that we now live in this is a play that would feel relevant even without this flourish. I liked it though, the contrast between the historical figure of Richard III and Shakespeare’s version is an interesting thought to plant in an audience’s mind whilst watching this play.
To state the blindingly obvious, Ralph Fiennes was the major draw for me of this production (as, one suspects, he was for everyone else in the audience) and, to state the even more blindingly obvious, he is a perfect Richard III. I’ve never seen Fiennes do Shakespeare in real life before and my goodness is it a treat. Get it on your bucket lists kids. He has the ~perfect~ voice for it, something which the tiny, echoey Almeida and some amazing sound design shows off to incredible effect. When he really lets fly in Richard’s angrier moment the echo goes on for what feels like hours and it’s magical. His characterisation of Richard as a rampant misogynist is an interesting take, and another aspect of the play which feels sadly relevant today, that largely pays off and certainly gives him scope to play with some of the language in a way that makes it feel fresh. But for me his Richard is strongest in the ‘lighter’ moments (obviously a relative concept) and the number of laughs he gets is probably the most striking thing about this performance for me. It almost feels like a Ralph Fiennes greatest hits medley: Voldemort meets M. Gustave. Hilarious with a very sharp edge. I dug it.
There is serious strength and depth is Fiennes’ supporting cast. Aislin McGuckin was my personal highlight as an outstanding Queen Elizabeth. Her anguish and piercing screams when she finds out that Richard has murdered her children is a proper, hair-on-end, Moment and her verbal sparring with Richard is like a particularly satisfying tennis match. Susan Engel is a touch of pure, venomous class as Cecily, Duchess of York too. For the boys, Finbar Lynch is a great, properly evil Buckingham (who I think might be my favourite character in R III) and Shakespeare’s Globe legend James Garnon crosses the river to turn in a fantastically smug, fun and tragic Hastings. There’s honestly not a weak link in this cast though, even if I was slightly underwhelmed by Vanessa Redgrave (I’m fully expecting the theatre gods to strike me down for admitting that).
The other star of this production is its design. I’ve already mentioned Adam Cork’s sound design, but his incidental music is also exceptional in a joyfully non-distracting way. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a brutalist joy, making the most of the Almeida’s exposed brickwork and dark corners and somehow making the fact that Richard’s modern day grave is left exposed for the entire show work too. The way that the skulls of Richard’s victims stack up along the back wall of the stage is also a fun touch, if your sense of fun is as bleak as mine. I increasingly love the Almedia as a space and this production makes really fantastic use of it.
Rupert Goold’s direction also deserves considerable praise. This is a long production but it really doesn’t feel like it; the action is perfectly paced. There are a couple of unnecessary directorly flourishes that don’t pay off - the crowbarring in of a Richard/Elizabeth rape scene being the prime example - but by and large this is a straight-bat, brutal production that is an absolute credit to all involved.
Highly recommended, probably sold out (though there is a day seat lottery), but thankfully getting a cinema broadcast on 21st July.
Richard III plays at the Almeida until 6th August.