The end of last week saw me make two trips to the Almeida to see the anticipated production of Richard III starring Ralph Fiennes in the title role. As these were previews, the production was still developing and there will have likely been a few more tweaks between my last trip on Friday and tomorrow night’s press night. There had already been some interesting small changes between the two nights I attended, which was very fascinating to see.
Overall I enjoyed this production. The bookend scenes are fantastic in setting the historical aspect of the story in the audience’s mind from the moment you enter the auditorium. We begin at an excavation site, as bones are unearthed while the audience takes their seats; the final bone to emerge – a curved spine. I’d been waiting for a production to reference a Leicester car park and the staging here worked well in giving a nod to the iconic nature of the play’s title character, even in the 21st century.
The bare brick walls of the Almeida are also ideal for staging the various scenes, whether a dark Tower cell, a council meeting room, or the barren battlefield. It gives a timeless feel to the production and I also liked the simple modern dress (mainly black suits and dresses) in helping not to set it in any specific modern period. Some of Richard’s great lines and asides also require a sense of connection and intimacy with the audience and at the Almeida he really does seem to be speaking to each one of you.
As for Fiennes, I enjoyed his portrayal, which was exactly along the lines I had expected. I’ve seen a few Richards now, but none have ever seemed truly evil. They have always possessed a sort of charm, which was then undercut in moments of cruelty (whether Spacey, Rylance, Jonjo O’Neil or even Cumberbatch for the recent BBC series). I’ve always been able to see how someone could be caught out by their charm and at times it’s made Richard seem less of a threat (especially so with Martin Freeman’s portrayal, notwithstanding one terrifying scene with a telephone cord). That’s not the case with Ralph Fiennes and I was pleased about that.
His Richard is utterly horrid, with no real charm at all. Instead he uses threats and dominance (at some points sexual in nature) to bend those around him to his will. When anyone attempts to stand up to him, he finds a way to diminish them, particularly the women, with one such moment in particular leaving me, for the first time watching this play, really looking forward to seeing him meet his end. Although this portrayal meant there was less humour in certain scenes (such as the scene with Richard supposedly at prayer, for which Spacey maintains the comedic crown), Fiennes still delivered some of Richard’s best lines with a dry humour that evoked laughs from the audience.
There are also some very good supporting performances. Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Joanna Vanderham as Anne were both particularly effective at bringing their characters’ heightened emotions to the forefront. They are very strong women, who each do their best to stand their ground when confronted with the actions of the monstrous Richard. Susan Engel also conveyed his mother’s utter horror and dismay at her son’s actions well and her final confrontation with him was very believable. The other stand-out performance for me was Finbar Lynch’s Buckingham, who often seems to be the driving force behind Richard. They are very much a team, moving the chess pieces around the board to finally position Richard on the throne and I thought the two actors had a great relationship on stage.
As for what didn’t work for me, the use of mobile phones by Hastings and Stanley was a distraction that served no purpose (other than to frustrate me)! No one else seemed to have one, meaning Tyrrell proves the deaths of the two princes with Polaroids and a paper calendar is consulted on the eve of battle. It’s a minor niggle, but one that still momentarily took me out of the scene.
I wasn’t hugely sold on Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Margaret either. I liked the fact she wasn’t a shrieking, hysterical figure and I assume her boiler suit-style outfit is a nod to her battle-ready history (although it did echo Miss Trunchball a bit too much for my liking). However, I found that the pace of scenes in which she appeared slowed considerably. For the first this perhaps works; she calmly and coolly makes her curses, seeming rather wise. In fact, other than the creepy doll she carries about, you tend to think the court really should be taking her words more seriously. For later scenes however, the pace felt much too slow and even quite dull, which has not been my experience of Margaret in any other production.
The other gripe for me, which I hope has gone by now (or at the very least can be explained to me by someone) is Fiennes’s use of a totally different accent during the battle! I couldn’t even tell what accent it was meant to be. I may perhaps be missing something hugely obvious, but it simply seemed bizarre and distracting to me.
I’ve personally never viewed this play as exciting, as some people seem to. I’ve always seen it as a story centred on a lot of talk and political scheming, rather than one of excitement and therefore the fact the overall pace did feel slow at times didn’t bother me too much (it had noticeably picked up during my second visit and so may have been further tightened up this week). The key to my enjoyment of Richard III is that I believe the performances and here I did in the majority of cases. It was great to finally see on stage a truly awful Duke of Gloucester and I’m sure Mr Fiennes will continue to mine the depths of his dark side over the course of the run. I’m looking forward to seeing it again in late July to see just how evil he has become!
Richard III continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 6th August 2016. Running time: 3 hours 15 mins approx. (including one 20 minute interval). Day seats will be available from 17th via the box office from 11 a.m.. Some tickets costing £20 will also be available via a lottery through the TodayTix app. The possibility of returns or last minute spare production seats means trying your luck at the theatre is also worth considering. For more information visit the website. For those unable to get to the theatre, the production will also be screened in cinemas on 21st July and details of that broadcast and participating cinemas can be found on the Live Almeida website.