The Almeida Theatre is one of the wonders of North London – a little theatre that has had a costly makeover, leaving the uncomfortable seating untouched, but still attracting high-paid Hollywood stars to work for relatively tiny fees. Why? The Almeida’s current Artistic Director is Rupert Goold, still the hottest director in town, which is at least half the explanation. Actors want to work with him; and it’s even possible that they like the Almeida audience, an educated, discriminating élite, right there in the middle of the people’s Republic of Islington. There is, of course, no similarity between Shakespeare’s “bottled spider [and] foul bunch-backed toad,” who gleefully murders his passage to the throne, and and Islington’s own MP, Jeremy Corbin, Leader of HM Loyal Opposition. Please don’t mention hypocrisy or the apparent need of all current politicians to tease the truth just a little in pursuit of power. It was both uplifting and depressing to see Ralph Fiennes play Richard III in Islington while we were still reeling from the Brexit lunacy.
As a bonus, there was the fruity irony of the politically dotty, elderly Vanessa Redgrave playing mad Queen Margaret in what current Labour Party circumstances have made her own political homeland. I could feel how scary her curses were, even though the night I was there her voice did not project as far as Row F. (I checked with other members of the audience that the fault was not my own hearing.) The venom was apparent, even if the voice was not, and it was a treat to see her, boiler-suited and clutching a tatty doll (though the symbolism escapes me). At one point she wiggles her fingers contemptuously, and her two digits command the entire dramatic space of the stage. Redgrave’s bearing and gestures are so elegant, so eye-catching, her body-language so clear and lucid, that as an actor she is now almost in a class of her own, and we are blessed and lucky to be able to see her on the stage once again even if we can’t hear all the words.
Goold’s production begins with the 2012 discovery of the royal bones with their curved spine in the Leicester car park, and returns to the excavation where the corpse of the loser of the Battle of Bosworth Field had been un-regally buried. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his programme notes, “his bones bear marks of what are called ‘humiliation injuries’ – that is, stab wounds through the buttocks and elsewhere that must have been inflicted on his corpse by people in a frenzy of loathing.”
Ralph Fiennes’s performance makes you understand the universal detestation of Richard III. He makes you see how the “croke backed” schemer could have been such a successful lover, as even his blackmailing, intimidating wooing of Lady Anne is somehow sexy. In this regard, though, there is one false note – a ten-second rape of Elizabeth with no text to support it. The episode is not necessary to make the point that Fiennes’ brutality is his expression of Richard’s masculinity, a misogynistic masculinity never modified by the love of women – not even a mother’s affection. What Goold calls Fiennes’ “muscularity,” though, transforms our idea of disability. To be disabled, even to be ugly and incapacitated, is not to be without power and strength. In future, anyone cheating or nicking my Blue Badge parking space had better watch out.
The supporting cast is mostly good, some, such as Scott Handy, Susan Engel, Finbar Lynch and Aislín McGucklin, excellent. But it’s Fiennes’ show, and he gives us a Richard III whose evil is far from unmotivated (as is Iago’s in Coleridge’s view) – he has ample reasons for his mountain of grudges and hostility to all humankind. Yet he reminds us of self-interested plotting politicians today, a Richard who bears a resemblance to some of our British “leaders,” but even more to some of the Americans who figure in the Chilcot Report, and to the Brexiters who want to extirpate some of our most valuable, even loved institutions without having bothered to think about what to replace them with. He is not modelled on a familiar, amiable-looking Right Winger with his cigarette and pint, except in his scorn for decency and rationality, though this Richard is a proto-fascist, as we know some UKIP supporters are. All this is to say, Ralph Fiennes’ Richard III is as complicated as Shakespeare intended, and as contemporary as tomorrow’s bad news.