REVIEW: Richard III (Almeida Theatre) ★★★★★


It is no secret that Richard III was not a nice person. He had a certain superficial charm but his penchant for murdering relatives and friends made him difficult to love. He became King after murdering many friends and relatives who got in his way, and then went to war to unsuccessfully retain his throne when everyone turned against him. This Richard does not look for or need excuses for killing people. He takes what he wants and no one will get in his way.

This is an interesting version of the play, both beginning and ending in the Leicester car park in which Richard’s remains were recently found. What is rather more inexplicable is that the cast, without warning, change into a (I suppose) Leicester/North of England accent for the last five minutes of the play. It is so unexpected it could be easily missed unless you are really concentrating. Strange, but fun.

Ralph Fiennes is one of those actors who outrageously dominates the stage. His Richard III is not just subtly played but powerful and energetic as well. He gives the audience exactly what they want, a droll, murderous, callas, fiercely intelligent monster. Someone too ruthless to be allowed to live. Although Richard was badly deformed by the curvature of his spine, Fiennes treats it as a bit of a nuisance and just one more handicap for him to overcome.

The wonderful Vanessa Redgrave played the once powerful and still vastly influential Queen Margaret of Anjou. Her character was rather creepy and witch like, and she carried a large doll around with her wherever she went which added to the feeling of her strangeness. During the play, Margaret curses a whole host of protagonists including Rivers, Dorset, Hastings, Buckingham and Richard III, all of whom subsequently die, supposedly due to her curses. So it is no wonder that no one dares laugh at her penchant for large girly toys. Redgrave was excellent and you could feel that you were in the presence of acting royalty.

The entire cast are brilliant. The play itself is both funny and dramatic and beautifully produced. I must confess to a soft spot for Joanna Vanderham who I last saw playing a hopeless drug addict in The Dazzle. Vanderham plays Lady Anne, wife of Henry VI and subsequently wife of her own husband’s assassin, Richard III. It is about her that Richard boasts ”Was ever a woman in this humour wooed?” as they are carrying her husband’s corpse away off stage.

Rupert Goold, the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, directed brilliantly and Hildegard Bechtler’s set is atmospheric and jumps between 2016 and 1485 and back again. The set fully illustrates the bleakness at the core of the play. Beautiful minimalist sets.

While Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film was excellent, and for a long time was considered the benchmark for any production of Richard III, I feel this stage version is better. This is more subtle and at the same time more physical. Fiennes’ Richard’s behaviour is more explicable and more human. Richard just takes what he wants and does not offer excuses or justification other than it is what he wants.

It seemed to me that Fiennes did not share his dark jokes with the audience in asides quite as Olivier did. Fiennes shares his dark asides quietly but with the entire court and does not care what they think. Olivier, referring to the young Prince Edward, turned to the camera to whisper, in confidence as it were, the prophetic “so wise so young, they say do never live long” Fiennes speaks the aside for everyone to hear. But why not? He has just been named the prince’s Lord Protector making him the de facto King anyway, and he had persuaded the two princes to go and live in the Tower of London from where, Richard knew, they would never return.

This fantastic production shows exactly what can be achieved with a talented cast, great direction and an intimate venue. It almost feels like the title role was made for Ralph Fiennes who gave a real tour de force performance, receiving a well deserved standing ovation from the audience who all seemed to enjoy the show as much as I did.

Reviewed by Graham Archer

RICHARD III plays at the Almeida Theatre until 6 August 2016