This son of York won’t leave you discontented

Alec Fullerton adores Ralph Fiennes as the dastardly Richard III

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Source: YouTube

Rupert Goold’s captivating production of Richard III at the Almeida theatre in Islington began with a directorial move that has become cliché enough to be used even on the stage of the O’Reilly or BT: the audience entered the theatre to find the action already underway.

On stage, actors reconstructed the now famous excavation that took place in Leicester in 2012, when Richard III’s strikingly misshapen spine, along with the rest of him, was discovered under a car park. Spookily enough, it was dug up right below a faintly painted letter ‘R.’ Given the mundane and ignoble nature of this resting place, it is hardly surprising that Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind.

This introduction helped create a buzz of anticipation and excitement amongst the packed audience and served to contextualise the play in light of this recent discovery. However, most importantly, this link draws attention to the relationship between the historical Richard, whose crooked bones are very much real, and the villainous character shrouding his memory, the Richard demonised for eternity in Thomas More’s historical biography.

Goold and the Almeida have gone from strength to strength in recent times – last year’s season ‘The Greeks’ receiving plaudits from all of the available pundits for restoring the Classics to their pride of place in the theatrical canon. It is no wonder, as the worthies of theatrical opinion fall over themselves to ululate in favour of this hauteur, that Goold can attract such ferocious star power as Ralph Fiennes to star as the eponymous scheming monarch.

Fiennes inevitably brings charisma and an enthralling stage presence to the character, although I found the most striking element of his performance to be the ease and control with which he reflects all the sides of Richard’s multifaceted character.

As the play begins with what must be one of Shakespeare’s best-known quotations, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York’, the hunchbacked Duke is depicted as the archetypal darkly comic villain. It must be said that during these comic moments Fiennes’ delivery and timing was spot on, demonstrating his absolute control over the audience and mastery of the role.

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As the play progresses and Richard’s plotting thickens, we witness the exposure of a more sinister character, who remorselessly gives the order for his own two nephews to be murdered while they sleep by hired killers. Of course no successful bid for royal power would be complete without the typical duplicity of the falsely compassionate and loyal Richard, which is contrasted greatly by his furious rage and desire for revenge as, once King, his lords turn on him. The brilliant range of Fiennes’ ability reaches its final extremity just before the final battle scene, as Richard momentarily falters after being visited by the ghosts of his past victims.

It must be said too that Fiennes’ exceptionally nuanced and, at times, terrifying, performance as Richard was perfectly complemented by his fantastic costume. It consisted of a prosthetic hump under his shirt, giving him a Quasimodo-esque hunchback, which also revealed through his shirt a gnarled, crooked spine. At one moment he removes his single, right glove to reveal a fantastically grim withered hand. The production’s brave refusal to back away from some of the horrors of Richard’s physical existence plays on a much maligned theme in the original text – that his malice might have been a response to the ostracisation he suffered as a result of his deformity.

Of course, this play wasn’t just about Ralph Fiennes, although the audience’s reaction as he took his final bow really said it all, he was supported by a very talented, capable and energetic cast. Special mention must go to Vanessa Redgrave as the senile Queen Margaret.

Besides the world class acting, a huge part of what made this performance so special was the incredible atmosphere created in the Almedia.

First off, the stage had the almost semi-circular backdrop of a brick wall, shrouded mostly with a curtain of iron chains. An observant audience member will notice too how as Richard’s grisly kill-count rises, a new skull is placed somewhere on the back wall for each new death. Then, when the ghosts come to visit Richard, the night before the final battle, as each one approaches and curses his soul, their respective skull lights up – perhaps a little heavy handed, but it was genuinely chilling in its execution.

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The eternal question for modern directors with Shakespeare is modern or traditional costume? There has been a fad lately for exceedingly dislocated and specific relocations – most egregiously, The Globe’s most recent production of The Taming of the Shrew, which was set during the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. In this case, Goold clearly couldn’t make his mind up, resulting in a surprisingly effective mishmash of modernity and tradition, which even the stuffiest of Shakespeare aficionados would struggle to criticise.

Given the framing of the play within the 2012 discovery of Richard’s body, it is therefore logical that the events depicted took place chronologically before that. Despite this, Goold opted for predominantly modern dress, including army uniforms and AK-47s.

This playful hesitancy between a definitively modern or period backdrop is used to great effect, for example, during the first scene, Richard asks Hastings ‘What news abroad?’, to which Hastings pulls an iPhone out of his pocket, scrolls through it for a moment and replies nonchalantly: ‘No news so bad abroad as this at home.’ The occasional use of this phone gag during the play was one of the comic highlights, a wry nod towards self-aware anachronism that managed to avoid being cripplingly smug.

However, for the final battle scene, all the combatants don very impressive suits of armour, which makes for a frankly jaw-dropping finale. As rain came down, the warriors battled with sword, pike and halberd until finally, inevitably, Richard is slain.

For inventive direction, a hugely atmospheric setting and above all, the incredible performance of Ralph Fiennes, this Richard III is an absolute must see this summer.