Ralph Fiennes gives us a slightly twisted mouth as well as body, “I can smile and murder while I smile” has rarely resounded more truthfully. He hobbles, plots, shouts, rapes, sometimes sardonic, sometimes anxious, eventually resigned. And it’s a treat to watch Fiennes listening to other actors and responding to them – always the ultimate mark of an actor at the top of his or her game. His is a riveting Richard full of “naked villainy” and this is a performance which will talked about for years to come.
It’s a fine, gimmick free, modern dress production too. Rupert Goold allows us almost the full text which is a refreshing change from the ultra-fashionable, pared down, paraphrased or gabbled versions we so often get these days. The diction is crystal clear from every single actor and Goold makes sure that everything that happens contributes to making the narrative as strong as possible. It’s also good to hear the language spoken at a speed which ensures every word carries (although it makes for a long night and a late train home). That is not to say that there isn’t a lot of fun with the language in this production. If you say Shakespeare’s words with a slightly different emphasis from usual they can often sound quite wittily current and serve as reminder of just how little the language has actually changed. When Scott Handy, as Clarence, for example feelingly mutters “Bloody Gloucester” through gritted teeth he could be sitting in a 2016 pub.
The four women in the production all give moving performances and spark well off each other. Aislin McGuckin, in particular, as Queen Elizabeth moves from being a solicitous wife to a howling, frenzied bereaved mother. Vanessa Redgrave is an asset as the prophesying Queen Margaret too, as you’d expect, although sometimes her voice strays worryingly close to her Call the Midwife persona. Goold’s production really brings out motherhood, anguish and abuse of women as a theme in this play.
There’s excellent work too from Finbar Lynch as the wizened, weaselly, self serving Buckingham who eventually finds his conscience. I once saw him as Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatraand his performance in Richard III drew my attention to just how similar these two roles are.
The framing device is inspired too. As the audience takes its seats actors in forensic suits and others passing by are excavating Richard in the carpark in 21st Century Leicester – or watching it. Then as the auditorium darkens we get a quasi BBC news story. The hole which forms Richard’s grave becomes part of the set – although sometimes it is covered. No prizes for guessing where Fiennes falls three and a quarter hours later at the rain-soaked battle of Bosworth.