The Almeida production of Richard III

Rupert Goold’s new production of Richard III will rank alongside the best of modern times: those of McKellen, Sher and Olivier.

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Credit for this goes to his leading actor Ralph Fiennes who invests a terrible misogyny in Richard’s ruthless and destructive ambition.  If there is a criticism of Fiennes’ performance it is that he downplays the sardonic humour inherent in the role. Richard is a man for whom there is no place in the world of peace and harmony.

Richard: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

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 I can add colours to the chameleon

 As he bullies, murders and manipulates his way to the throne, it is Richard’s attitude towards the women in the play that is the most shocking. This is clear in the text when he dispatches his first wife Anne, whom he seduces in the second scene of the play.

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Anne is played by Joanna Vanderham

But this production departs from tradition in the scene where Richard informs his dead brother Edward’s wife Elizabeth that he would marry her daughter. To emphasise the new order of things now that he is king, he rapes her.

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Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth

It is a brutal and shocking scene but this production makes quite clear why women like Anne and Elizabeth are so compliant to Richard’s wishes. They are deeply fearful of what he will do to their loved ones if they do not do as he wishes.

This production delineates the relationships between Richard and the other male members of the Court most clearly.  The court is deeply divided as is made clear in the scene where the dying Edward endeavours to reconcile his wife’s relatives with the other members of the court, in particular Buckingham played with rigid uprightness by Finbar Lynch.

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The only thing that unifies the court is a hatred of Richard. Buckingham however, decides to align himself with Richard and he becomes Richard’s chief executioner.  As time goes by, Buckingham realises the price one pays for being too close to Richard and the executioner becomes the executed.

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Throughout the play, Richard never does his own dirty work. It is delegated down through the chain of command, to Buckingham, to Catesby, to Ratcliffe, to Tyrell or the two murderers. In part, this is what makes Richard so fascinating. No one will oppose him. It is not until Richmond returns with his army that the tide begins to turn against Richard.

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Richard is a unique tragic hero, if he could be called a hero at all. Unlike Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet or Lear, there is no element of the fallen noble character in him. He is irredeemably evil, much like Iago or even Iachimo. Consequently, the actor playing Richard need to make no attempt to enlist the audience’s sympathy.  In many ways, this makes the actor’s task rather more easy. While role requires tremendous energy, it does not need to be nuanced in any way.

So when the end and retribution come, there is a sense that the ghosts of Richard’s victims who visit him before the Battle of Bosworth, will finally be at peace.

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The difficult aspect of any production of Richard III is the women in the play: Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, Anne, the Duchess of York and Margaret Plantagenet. The first problem is that there are so many of them and they are not particularly well differentiated because they all hate Richard with a passion and for pretty much the same reason. He has killed one of their husbands or sons.

Another of the problems is that the family relationships are pretty tangled. For instance, Margaret Plantagenet is the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard, and is in her grandmother the Duchess of York’s keeping after Clarence’s arrest. 

One of the most interesting of the women is Queen Margaret, played in this production by the 78 year old Vanessa Redgrave.

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Margaret is the widow of King Henry VI. Richard has killed her husband in battle and murdered her son.

She comes onstage wearing a boiler suit and carrying a doll. Why a doll?  Grieving for a lost child? Perhaps. It makes her look slightly mad but there is nothing in Redgrave’s gently modulated delivery of Margaret that gives any hint of insanity. It’s a beautifully controlled performance.  And the boiler suit!  She is an ex-Queen for heaven’s sake. It wouldn’t hurt to make her regal and dignified in her grief.

The scenes between Richard and his mother, the Duchess of York, are fascinating to watch. We need to be aware that she is bowed down by the grief of the death of her son Edward IV and by the knowledge that Edward has ordered the death of her other son Clarence, probably at the prompting of her other son, Richard. She has also had a fractious relationship with Richard for all of his life and exchanges between the two are bitter and vitriolic.

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 The Duchess of York and Queen Margaret: little in common except a hatred of Richard

Like most modern productions, this one is in contemporary dress. This makes some of the executions seem harrowingly relevant.

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However, the execution of Hastings is done by more traditional means.  This allows for a chilling scene where Richard comes in and licks the blood from the block. This is surely the most monstrous Richard.

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 The mixture of modern and traditional dress is a quibble. But it’s also an annoyance. Modern and traditional dress both work. The mixture probably doesn’t work quite so well.

 Then there are the opening and closing scenes of the play. They are taken from a car park where the remains of Richard have recently been discovered. A team of archaeologists is busy digging up his skeleton.

 It’s a distraction. There is no connection between the play and the discovery Richard’s remains. It doesn’t add “relevance” to the play. If you can’t see the relevance of this play by sitting in theatre, you probably shouldn’t attend.

 One of the tremendous strengths of this production is the way the play has been brought to the screen. The camera work is superb and the stage at Almeida has been used to tremendous advantage.

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 This is a magnificent production anchored by a stellar performer Ralph Fiennes.

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