Almeida Theatre’s Richard III
RICHARD III, filmed theatrical production, not rated, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
Ralph Fiennes smiles, and murders while he smiles, as he assumes the twisted frame and warped soul of Shakespeare’s arch villain Richard III, a man who does not let himself be discouraged by his low standing on the ladder of succession to the English throne.
This is the acclaimed Almeida Theatre production of the Shakespeare play, which recently closed in London after a run that gained extra immediacy from the Machiavellian power struggles waged in England over the Brexit campaign. “It’s quite rare that you actually are close to a political crisis, political uncertainty,” Fiennes observed in a recent interview with
The Guardian. “We went into this not knowing what the referendum result was going to be, so when it was as divisive as it was and we saw all these political figures making a play for leadership, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove ... the audience suddenly, it changed.”
The direction by Rupert Goold (King Charles III) makes canny use of the Almeida’s compact stage. He opens with the 2012 excavation in a Leicester parking lot of the bones of the British monarch who — at least in Shakespeare’s telling — died yelling for a horse at Bosworth Field in 1485. Hazmat-suited archaeologists unearth a few bones, then a skull, and finally the S-shaped spine of the deformed king. A glass floor slides over the excavated grave, and Fiennes, clad in a double-breasted jacket, limping with a humped back and bent over a cane, appears, muttering about the winter of our discontent.
The performances are outstanding from top to bottom. Fiennes’ Richard is malevolent, misanthropic, and startlingly matter-of-fact, even as he schemes and assassinates and rapes his way through the family to get his hands on the crown. The women, starting with Vanessa Redgrave as a fuddled but steely Queen Margaret, and Aislín McGuckin as a fierce Queen Elizabeth, are superb, and the quality never slackens through Clarence, Buckingham, Hastings, and down to the fresh-faced little princes in their school uniforms.
Like so many contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s historical plays, this Richard III is set in the present day, with modern dress and cell phones informing the action. It’s a conceit that works reasonably well, and reinforces the relevance to today’s headlines, although the device stumbles a bit when swordplay (where would we be without the trusty sword cane?) and suits of armor can’t be avoided.
This production was filmed in July at the Almeida for worldwide broadcast à la National Theatre Live, and that recording is what is now coming to cinemas. The program, with an introduction and an intermission, runs well over three hours, but it moves fluidly and doesn’t lose its grip. — Jonathan Richards
The bitter queen and the murderous king: Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes