Ralph Fiennes stars as the eponymous Richard III in Rupert Goold’s production at the Almeida Theatre, which is more tragedy than history play. It is now screening in cinemas worldwide.
Rupert Goold’s Richard III at the Almeida Theatre is not a history play, but a tragedy — as it was titled in the First Quarto. Goold fortells Richard’s fate from the play’s first moments, opening not with Richard himself, but with his remains. Our first sight of Richard (Ralph Fiennes) is of strangers standing in his grave, which was discovered in 2012, just blocks from the Almeida. In a cordoned-off pit centre stage, white-suited figures excavate and display his bones. Our last image before the opening monologue is a spotlighted archaeologist holding out Richard’s curved, hunchbacked spine.
Richard III usually introduces himself — and his disability — on his own terms. But here Richard’s skeleton is excavated, and his curved spine displayed, before Fiennes even steps onstage. All Richard’s scheming is bound to feel futile after that. An enormous crown hangs like a Sword of Damocles above the stage throughout the play. Fiennes gestures toward it during the opening monologue with a certain amount of fatalism: this Richard recognizes the ominous threat that comes with power but seeks it anyway. An otherwise sparse set has two repeated motifs that accent Goold’s tragic interpretation: a shelf of skulls, which increases with Richard’s body count; and the open grave at the front of the stage, which has a glass cover that slides back as the play progresses. Characters must awkwardly skirt around it or play about inside it when their grief becomes too great.
Fiennes’ Richard is, of course, a master manipulator, but a wounded one. Instead of just letting the audience in on his machinations, Fiennes’ Richard shows us the hidden depth of his resentment. Unlike Ian McKellan’s iconic Richard III (1995 film), who seems rather amused by the abuse hurled his way, Fiennes’ Richard recoils like a struck animal from each insult before shaking it off. He’s a man hemmed in and thwarted by his physical limitations — even in the eyes of the audience, since we see Richard’s recurved spine before we meet the man himself. In keeping with this, Goold’s production makes much of Richard’s deformity, even highlighting it in the battle scenes by making his hunched spine protrude from the shoulder of his armour.
Fiennes is a masterful performer, and he manages the near-impossible: to give a genuinely unexpected, if uneven, variation on an iconic character. By the interval, we’ve seen Richard interact with other characters, and we’ve come to understand how deeply embittered he is by others’ revulsion at his deformity. But Fiennes throws away the opening monologue: we got none of this character information there, though it’s written to introduce Richard’s character and his relationship to his disability. Although Richard’s resentment about the treatment he receives sometimes feels perilously close to an attempt to humanize Richard, the show mostly stays on the right side of the line between demanding our understanding and asking for sympathy. We understand Richard but are never tempted to make excuses for him.
Queen Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave) and the Duke of Buckingham (Finbar Lynch) are the only characters who can truly rival Fiennes’ Richard for the spotlight. Queen Margaret is a role that’s often cut because she too often comes off as The Ghost of Christmas Past (as in Sam Mendes’ otherwise compelling production at the Old Vic Theatre in 2011). But Redgrave makes Margaret a more formidable figure than any of the current court. Clad in a military jumpsuit, cradling a baby doll, she bemoans the loss of her children while spitting curses and foretelling the demise of basically everyone on stage. In a production invested in fatalism, she’s the personification of history, a prophetess rather than a distraction.
Buckingham deserves particular credit as the smooth talker to Richard’s scheming brains. Handsome, trim, and poised, the Duke seems confident and in control — until, like everyone else, the ground falls out from under him. When Richard affectionately describes him as “my other self” it’s not because they’re alike, but because they are complementary. This Buckingham isn’t a toady or a kingmaker, but a man who sees Richard as an equal. Even if he’s a wrong ‘un, we feel his betrayal when he realizes that Richard views him as no better than the rest.
Listen to Mary Angela Rowe discuss the Richard III films here.