Richard III, Almeida, London, theatre review: Ralph Fiennes's Richard is full of misanthropic disdain

Should make a powerful impact when it is broadcast to cinemas

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The Independent Culture

Rupert Goold's lucid, compelling production begins and ends in 2012 at the excavation site in the Leicester car park. While the audience take their seats, figures in forensic white suits and masks are seen unearthing and examining bones in the taped-off hole centre-stage. Their climactic find is a curved spine which is held aloft: we hear radio reports of an “extraordinary discovery”.  

Of course, if it weren't for Shakespeare's indelibly brilliant portrayal of Richard as a monstrous Machiavel (the infamous “bottled spider [and] foul bunch-backed toad”) – however unfair and the product of Tudor propaganda – there would not be this fascination with the real-life monarch's remains. The prelude here provides a context that invites you to consider the interaction of history and myth.  But it does not do so in the interests of any corrective special pleading on Richard's behalf. 

In the programme, Stephen Greenblatt writes about how the skeleton unearthed in Leicester seems to confirm Shakespeare's intuition that “there is a relationship between the shape of a spine and the shape of a life”. There's not an iota of sentimentality, though, in the way that the production (in timeless/modern dress) attends to this.

It's as if Ralph Fiennes's chilling Richard is so full of misanthropic disdain that he declines to stoop to the outrageous charm with which the hero traditionally seduces the audience into a state of near-complicity as he murders his way to the throne.  He signals his hypocrisies not with juicy, self-delight but with wittily flicked pellets of dry humour and pedantic emphases. 

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At one point, he launches into the “Hail Mary” prayer and affects to have forgotten the name of the personage who was the “fruit of [her] womb”. Because we're never in any danger of rooting for him, the essential isolation of this intimidatory Richard is particularly marked, for all his temporary partnership with Finbar Lynch's saturnine Buckingham. 

The misogyny that seems to stem from a lack of mother-love is expressed in a particularly brutal form here too. The female characters are all strongly cast. Aislin McGuckin is magnificent as Elizabeth, giving vent to a tempest of incredulity and dazed that have terrible consequences for him in this production's version of the scene where Richard asks her to woo her daughter for him. 

Making her Almeida debut at the age of 79, the ever-remarkable Vanessa Redgrave gives us a fresh take on Margaret and her curses. Clad in a boiler suit and cradling a compensatory scruffy doll, she delivers the queen's prophecies with the rather sane-sounding authority of a veteran of suffering.  

The production is perhaps a tad slow and unvaryingly paced, but it never loses its grip. The spinally deformed loner, who recoils in agony and murderous outrage when his little nephew jumps on him for a piggy back, ends up scrambling horse-less and friendless round Bosworth Field on the lip of that excavation site. Coming full circle so vividly, as it enfolds past and present, fiction and fact, and with a hypnotic central performance, this Richard III is an ideal choice for the first Almeida live event and should make a powerful impact when it is broadcast to cinemas round the world on 21 July.  

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