Rupert Goold’s production of Richard III is bookended by the discovery of Richard’s remains in a Leicester car park in 2012. We see the scientific excavation and we hear the news report echoing through bare space; his S-shaped spine is held up before us recovered and verified. This is a statement that intends to make us brutally aware that Shakespeare’s villain, so evil it feels sensationalised, was a man. The stories of Richard III – the propaganda perpetuated by his successors, the myths, the legends, the wickedness symbolised by the image of his hunchback – may be less materialised of fiction than we thought. Of course it is another fiction to think the shape of the body correlates to the shape of the mind. But it is the relationship between fact and fiction that spawns the delicate success of this production. It is what involves us as an audience, makes us believe and more so makes us conspirators to Richard’s behaviour.
There are more layers, still, to the fact-fiction unity. Richard has created a narrative of his own, rising to the throne in the most action-fuelled, dramatic way imaginable. He has decided the end goal of his story and laced the in-between with vulgar plot point after vulgar plot point. This is Richard’s story and that which we are watching is Richard’s story. Ralph Fiennes’s Richard III is a showman: we are putty in his hands. He is a leader, both of the cast and of the narrative’s kingdom. The rest fall in his wake. Fiennes is in complete control, talking to us directly, and is so aware of his method that we barely know that it is happening. He has an innate wit and a humour that makes this detestable man understatedly charismatic and even – dare I say it – likeable. In this, Fiennes has a unique ability to make malice, molestation and even rape seem such relaxed pastimes that they are palatable. More than that, you’re not aware that the evil coming out of his actions, and out of his eyes as they look directly through you, is even passing your lips or penetrating your skin.
This direct address is part of the stylisation within this production. It is hollow and bare, if sometimes lacking in emotional integrity. It is the absence of emotional response that is missing most. The female characters in particular seem both sterile and futile. Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Margaret bandies around the stage without root. She has lost a child and a husband and Redgrave is raw and ready to draw on grief for this, but Goold leaves too much empty space around her. Her plight simply echoes around the room and fades to nothing. Similar is true of all the supporting characters: we can’t empathise fully with them and therefore Richard’s malevolence can be allowed to continue without the consequences landing with gravitas.
This is by no means enough to take too much away from what is a beautiful production. Richard’s ability to walk all over anyone who happens to be in his way, without so much as twisting his warped spine, holds enough intrigue to buy a ticket – or tune in, via Almeida Theatre Live, to its global live cinema broadcast on 21 July.
Richard III is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 6 August. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website. Photo: Marc Brenner