Almeida Theatre, London (****)
Like The Merchant of Venice and anti-semitism, staging Shakespeare’s Tudor propagandist Richard III, has become more problematic with our changing 21st century sensibilities towards disability.
Some things do date. Chillingly, some things don’t. History goes in cycles.
There are lines in Rupert Goold’s much anticipated revival with Ralph Fiennes as the variously styled hunchback `toad’, `hedgehog’, `homicide’ that sadly chime all too loudly with our present toxically divided times. Will a Henry Richmond appear to bring peace and unity to our `Wars of the Roses’ civil divisions?
Only time will tell. For the moment, Goold’s revival feels extraordinarily resonant. And modern. With characteristic immediacy, Goold brings Richard’s death in the 15th century right up to date with a pre-scene simulating the recent archaeological Leicester dig where remains, thought to be Richard’s, were found in 2012.
From thereon in, the only other deference to historical period emerges in the pomp of Richard’s crowning and the pocket sized, thrillingly imaginative Bosworth battle with silver-plated armour, glinting in the light, added to the cast’s modern dress.
As for Fiennes, after the fireworks of his Man and Superman and Master Builder performances, this Richard at least for the first half is quieter – a smooth, roll-top sweater wearing political operator, whose hidden venom only begins to reveal itself first in the violent seduction of Lady Anne, later the shocking rape of Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth.
It’s a calculated performance, neither showy nor barn-storming but Fiennes exudes virile presence despite his pronounced physical `handicaps’ and epitomising the lengths to which the power-hungry will go to achieve their aims.
Around him, Finbar Lynch’s shrewd-eyed Buckingham, James Garnon’s self-regarding Hastings stand out in a strong cast in which Vanessa Redgrave’s bedraggled Queen Margaret struggles for lines but still conveys a unique sense of mangled magnificence when the three queens join together to curse Richard around a gaping earth-filled grave.
Dark and brooding, where conscience only fleetingly makes an appearance in Fiennes’ psychopathic villain, Goold’s restrained production (for him) makes this Richard III very much a play for today, where family, friends and all are considered cannon fodder when it comes to one man’s ambition to be top dog.
Richard III plays at the Almeida Theatre to Aug 6, 2016; and will be broadcast live worldwide in cinemas July 21st, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, June 2016