Richard III

Posted by Laurence Green

Ralph Fiennes delivers a nightmarish performance in a first rate production of Richard III, writes Laurence Green.

Ralph Fiennes - Richard III

It is not often you find an actor at the top of his game giving a powerhouse performance but this is certainly true of Ralph Fiennes who redefines the nature of evil as Shakespeare's tyrant  king in Rupert Goold's first-rate production of Richard III at the Almeida Theatre.

The discovery of Richard III's remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012 provides a framing device for this production. As a group of bystanders look on, the king's spine, bent by scoliosis, is raised from the grave and held aloft for all to see. We are then plunged into a foreboding, monochrome world, a country left poisoned by civil war which has become the playground of the tyrant. Richard emerges as a man forged by his times: the twisted product of a vicious, vengeful period, so his bloody rise to power eliminating all those who stand in his way seems a natural progression.

A huge crown looms above the action possibly a symbol of the relentless grinding of history's gears. Meanwhile, behind Richard a display of skulls mounts up as his murderous glee intensifies. Darkness dominates. The characters all wear black, their costumes contemporary, at least until they switch their suits for gleaming breastplates for impressively staged battle scenes.

Ralph Fiennes, in a sharp blue suit, makes the shadowy monarch resemble a malign business mogul acquiring ill-gotten trophies and his authoritative rendering of the 'Now is the winter of our discontent' speech at the beginning of the play with the emphasis on the word 'now' forges a disturbing link between past and present. With his body contorted, his hand concealed by a black glove and wielding a cane that contains a blade, Fiennes can hardly sustain his twisted logic as every sneer that contorts his face seems carefully calculated  and he revels in being dislikeable. But Fiennes also skilfully brings out the character's sardonic wit. He is nevertheless a cold fish, revelling in his contempt of others, and chilling in his misogyny and his deep self-loathing emerges as a rejection of anything emotionally touching- family, friendship, religion.

The best performances around him are Vanessa Redgrave desolate and silver-haired attempting to feed the doll who brings an unexpected gentleness to the frail confused Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, Finbar Lynch as the ruthless duke of Buckingham, set on his own advancement, James Garnon as the self-satisfied Hastings, blundering around and refusing to recognise signs of danger, Daniel Cerqueira as the savvy Catesby and Aislin McGuckin as the fiery Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV.

Hildegarde Bechtler's set crowns the action with a great circle of light  - perhaps the swirl of a car park - that highlights the actors' faces and sets their deeds into shadow and there are some striking visual moments, most notably when Richard is crowned and cloaked for his coronation.

The production is perhaps rather slow in places and takes a while to gather momentum but it never loses  its grip and forcefully reminds us that ugly times breeds ugly minds.

The evening, though, belongs to Fiennes whose nightmarish performance will not be forgotten in a hurry!

Richard III

Runs at The Almeida Theatre until Saturday 6 August 2016

Box office: 020 7359 4404

Images: © Marc Brenner

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