By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Goold
Set by Hildegard Bechtler
Costume by Jon Morrell
Composition & Sound by Adam Cork
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London
Thursday 30th June 2016, 7 pm
Ralph Fiennes – Richard Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III
Scott Handy- George, Duke of Clarence
Joanna Vanderham – Lady Anne
Vanessa Redgrave – Queen Margaret
Susan Engel – Duchess of York
Aislin McGuckin – Queen Elizabeth
James Garnon – Lord Hastings
Finbarr Lynch – Duke of Buckingham
Joseph Mydell – Lord Stanley
Joshua Riley – Marquess of Dorset
Joseph Arkley- Earl Rivers
Tom Canton – Sir Robert Brackenbury / Earl of Richmond
Daniel Cerqueira – Catesby
Simon Coats – Bishop of Ely
Mark Hadfield – Ratcliffe / Mayor
David Annen – King Edward IV / James Tyrell / Sir James Blunt
Lukas Rolfe / Baxter Westby – Prince Edward
Benedict Barker / Oliver Whitehouse – Richard, Duke of York
Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice, set in Las Vegas was one of the most inventive re-locations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. Richard III is a more straightforward affair, as 20th / 21st century costume is the default position for the play. It was strange to see it in the Wars of The Roses trilogy at Kingston last year with clanking armour and swords.
I sometimes type the cast list and check the links to my other reviews here in advance of seeing the production. That’s when I realized that the list of actors I’ve reviewed before is probably the longest one on the blog. James Garnon (Lord Hastings) has the most entries, but this really is some of the cream of recent British theatre. It took so long to do the links, a recent introduction here, that I might skip this feature in future.
Richard (Ralph Fiennes)
Richard III is the ultimate play for Brexit week. It was even more apposite on June 30th, with Michael Gove stabbing Boris Johnson in the back, the Labour party in turmoil, everyone trying to create alliances and bring down enemies. I was casting it in my mind last weekend with politicians. Rupert Murdoch would be directing the whole thing, with Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail as choreographer, Richmond Desmond of the Daily Express as Assistant Director. I had thought Boris Johnston as the scheming, lying backstabbing Richard with Michael Gove as Buckingham, but now Gove gets Richard instead, and Johnson had best be a Lancastrian. We could have a portrait of David Cameron as the weak, ineffectual (and dead) Henry VI. Or if you prefer, the dying Edward IV. Angela Eagle as Lady Anne … though she’ll need a word about voice projection and charisma. Teresa May as Queen Elizabeth. Oh, and Nigel Farage as third spear carrier and buffoon, always marching out of step, doubling with Clarence. Perhaps the audience can be invited up to help push his head under the surface of the barrel of wine, though in Islington there might be a dangerous rush to join in. I couldn’t find a part for Islington’s local MP Jeremy Corbyn, as I feared he wouldn’t turn up, and if he did, give too half-hearted delivery.
This production is inspired by the discovery of Richard III’s body in a Leicester car park in 2012. You enter the theatre to see two men working on a grave, putting bone fragments into plastic bags and labelling. More join them, and a crowd (most of the cast in other modern clothes) gathers slowly to watch over ten minutes before the play starts with the radio announcement of the discovery of the body, at which point first a skull, then a twisted spine are lifted from the grave. Lights down. Then up to reveal Richard at the back… I thought a great start.
The grave is covered by sliding glass, and stays on view throughout. A huge crown is suspended over the whole set, as I read, but in fact from the front of the circle, we couldn’t see it was a crown, and I thought it a metal circular lighting device. From our position, there was one really bad lighting moment from the glass (or perspex) stage, in the scene where Richard pretends to be shocked at the invitation to be king. That had different lighting to the rest of the play, and the spots reflected directly off the glass over the grave onto the auditorium left circle and we had to try and mask the reflections with our hands to see, as did everyone around us. The set has been described as austere. It is unadorned, but the omnipresent grave, sometimes covered, sometimes open with dirt around is the major focus. A kind of net separates the back area, and the other feature is that after each killing, a new lighted skull appears on the back wall. I was unsure about that … it is a video game score reference.
While it’s modern dress, they unashamedly don armour for the battle. It works, because we’ve played with time scales as we went from 2012 in a Leicester car park, into the play (and it will end with the archaeologist bringing on the working light again, with Richard in the grave). One of the key successes of Richard III and why it’s my favourite history play, is that Shakespeare created a compacted time scale which seems to run as a story without any awareness of the real time intruding or any jagged jumps … it begins after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, with Prince Edward’s corpse, goes past the Duke of Clarence’s death in 1478, and Edward IV’s death five years later in 1483 and ends at Bosworth Field in 1485. You feel it’s all happened in a few weeks.
Richard III is inevitably a vehicle for the central character, so we will ever think of this as the Ralph Fiennes’ Richard. I read the reviews. Both Michael Billington and Domenic Cavendish gave the play three stars, and reviews are somewhat grudging in their admiration for Fiennes’ interpretation. It is cold, cruel, deeply misogynist. He spits out he word “woman.” He shows a furious (and very funny) double take when Buckingham describes his pretended reluctance to take the crown as effeminate. In the Lady Anne first scene, he thrusts his hand between her legs viciously. In an innovation for the play, he rapes Queen Elizabeth on stage while demanding her daughter (his young niece) in marriage. The critical point is that he less of a wily trickster, makes less of an attempt to win us over than in some other productions. In the Kevin Spacey Old Vic version, which is my benchmark, Richard is vainly trying to keep a lid on displaying his violent streak early on and it gradually becomes more and more explicit as he gains power. Fienne’s Richard is obviously nasty from the outset. But then that’s true of versions where it’s in a Wars of The Roses trilogy, because we’ve seen him wading in blood in Henry VI – Part 3. However, both of us thought his interpretation valid, and brilliantly performed. His phrasing and pausing genuinely threw new light through old windows. His delivery was measured,and crystal clear, wringing sense from every word. Above all he has a terrifying basilisk stare. His physical action again was great, though he didn’t do himself up in callipers, he did have his right arm tied up throughout. His shirt had the twisted spine on view through the cloth, and even when he donned armour, there was a lump in the backplate to contain it.
In production terms, the “persuading Richard to accept” scene was low-key compared to recent productions which go for lots of shouting from the auditorium, video feeds, microphones … all of which can be done in modern dress. The hallmark of this production is letting the acting and text tell the story, and even though low key, it was effective.
The reviews praise Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, whose husband and son were slaughtered by Richard. Instead of the aged soothsayer, she is played as demented geriatric, clutching a battered doll which she feeds with whisky. The picture shows a powerful moment when Richard twists its rubber face.
Queen Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave) and Richard (Ralph Fiennes)
Vanessa Redgrave adds to the plays austere ambience, in that she understates her lines with flashes of geriatric venom. It is an odd interpretation, and indeed, it’s a privilege to see her playing a major role like this at 79. We were both somewhat unconvinced though. A couple of reviews praise the older women, Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York as outstanding. We thought they had a tendency to pick up Fienne’s measured pace, which worked brilliantly for him, but slowed their scenes too much. I felt the Duchess of York’s curse … Edward IV, Clarence and Richard are her sons … lacked a pace and build, though the best I ever saw the Duchess of York was when she was done as Margaret Thatcher. I was also in two minds about Lady Anne. She was convincing, standing doll like through Richard’s coronation, then trembling as he told them to announce that she was sick and like to die. In the major early scene, where he woos her next to her husband’s corpse, it sounded very different to my expectations. I’d have to see the live to cinemas broadcast to decide.
Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) and Richard of Gloucester (Ralph Fiennes)
The outstanding female role in the play is Queen Elizabeth, mother to the princes in the tower. Earl Rivers is her brother, the Marquis of Dorset is her son by her first marriage, before she wedded Edward IV. The power is on the page, with the scene where Richard demands her daughter signalling his total descent into evil. Aislin McGuckin’s interpretation is powerful, the rape scene truly horrifying, with Fiennes’ foul grunts and her screaming before limping away.
Queen Elizabeth (Aislin McGuckin)
Rupert Goold has assembled as good a cast as you can find in 2016. Everyone a winner. Buckingham is always the second-best male role, and Finbarr Lynch looks like a political party advisor, and there are enough of those around. There are not many Richard III ‘s where the Mayor of London is an outstanding part, but Mark Hadfield does the best and funniest Mayor of London I’ve ever seen as well as Ratcliffe, the assistant reluctant murderer of Clarence.
Lord Hastings (James Garnon) and Richard III (Ralph Fiennes)
James Garnon is the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hastings. He receives news by text, his mobile phone is always at hand. Again, the best Lord Hastings I’ve seen. His speech before having his head chopped off … a chopping block is put on his office table … was perfect for the very day when Game of Thrones (as descended from Richard III) hit the Houses of Parliament:
Lord Hastings Miserable England! I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee, that ever wretched age hath looked upon!
All around us, we could hear people going “Mmm!” We were.
Death of Edward IV. L to R: Buckingham (Finbar Lynch), Hastings (James Garnon), Ely (Simon Coates), Edward IV (David Annen), Queen Elizabeth (Aislin McGucklin), Dorset (Joshua Riley), Rivers (Joseph Arkley)
Joseph Arkley’s Earl Rivers was very good indeed, and his death scene was one of the strong theatrical moments, kneeling at the grave, a firing squad behind him, blood exploding from his chest as he plunged head first into the grave. Then Joseph Mydell’s stately Lord Stanley, was the permanent observer, and in the end the guy who saves the day by switching his troops to Richmond. Having worked with him years ago on educational videos, it’s fascinating to hear not a trace of his natural American accent. He is always a joy to watch. Catesby (Daniel Cerqueria) was a vicious piece of work, filling an oil drum with water from a carefully unfurled hose before drowning Clarence … Scott Handy took that long Clarence speech beautifully. There was not a weak spot.
The murder of the Duke of Clarence. Catesby (Daniel Cerqueria) and Ratcliffe (Mark Hadfield)
Length is mentioned. It is cut of course, but less than some, and I’d guess that the measured pace adds to length as much as simply doing more of the lines. It runs at three hours 15 minutes, including interval. With knees pressed tight against the balcony and flat seats that can feel very long indeed, but it didn’t at all. A sign of its gripping nature.
The music is by Adam Cork, and used to great effect. Sometimes it’s a loud drone or hum, sometimes a full on piece of music. There was a great musical clang as they drew their swords. Spot on timing.
We booked this late. Because of other appointments, we couldn’t stay overnight, and we had little choice of days. It took us three and a half hours to drive to Islington in awful traffic. It took us three hours to drive home with the inevitable nightime closures on both the M3 and M4 meaning long diversions … it took us 125 miles with diversions to cover 100 miles. We got home at 1.30, exhausted. And it was worth every minute of it to see this production. Ralph Fiennes was a significant and memorable Richard III. OK, I still rate Kevin Spacey as the best ever (sorry, Sir Laurence and Sir Ian), but this was an unmissable one.
* * * *
Marquis of Dorset , Queen Elizabeth and Lord Rivers … the programme makes it clear who is who.
£5 is over the going rate (£3.50 to £4), but it includes an excellent Plantagenet family tree, colour coded York / Lancaster and with characters who appear in Richard III in bold. I knew Richard and Anne must be related, as they all were, but I hadn’t realised she was his first cousin’s daughter. Still, for Richard, a second cousin was remote. I knew, and probably Shakespeare didn’t, that Anne and Richard were brought up together in the same castle.The inserted cast list is exactly what I keep asking theatres to do:
Wife to the murdered Lancastrian Prince Edward, son of Henry VI and Queen Margaret.
Marquis of Dorset
Son of Queen Elizabeth by her first marriage.
Excellent. We don’t all recall the exact history of every Shakespeare play. There are lots of colour photos of rehearsals, but I don’t really like colour photos of rehearsals. The title is not on the front, and lavender ink on grey paper for cast and creative bios and essays is a really dumb designer choice for something which people often leaf through in the dark auditorium waiting for the play to begin.
ISLINGTON … A RANT
Jeremy Corbyn is the local MP, and a local shop had Corbyn colouring books with the advice to “use mainly red.” The awful traffic getting to Islington reminded me of a debate a few years ago. You can drive to Islington right through London without entering the London Congestion Charge Zone, though you skirt along its side. Islington was famously the home of Labour Party grandees, like Tony Blair. People in West London and Southwark (where a spur of the charge zone reaches out around Waterloo station to catch motorists) complained bitterly that Islington was just as crowded, the route to it past Euston and Kings Cross stations being just about the worst permanent traffic jam of all, far worse than Waterloo, yet strangely that road and Islington’s main street (which happens to be the start of the A1 road) escaped the congestion charge. Of course, the fact that the route is charge free greatly exacerbates the traffic problem. How odd!
COMING IN BROADCAST TO CINEMAS:
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF RICHARD III
Richard III – Spacey, 2011 Old Vic Kevin Spacey as Richard III
Richard III – RSC 2012 Jonjo O’Neill as Richard III
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Richard III – Freeman, Trafalgar Studio Martin Freeman as Richard III
Richard III – Wars of The Roses, Kingston, Robert Sheehan as Richard III
The Winter’s Tale, Wanamaker (Autolycus)
As You Like It – Globe (Jacques)
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Wanamaker (Bergetto, Cardinal)
Duchess of Malfi– Wanamaker (Cardinal)
Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic (Don Pedro)
Richard III – Globe / Apollo (Duchess of York / Richmond)
Pericles – Wanamaker (Pericles)
Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic (Beatrice)
The Rehearsal, Chichester 2015 (Villebosse)
Fortune’s Fool, The Old Vic 2014