Richard III is another one of these plays I will keep coming back to again and again – not just because it is put on so frequently, but also because I really love the number of possible interpretations which can be placed on Richard’s character.
It was therefore a bit of a shame that, for me at least, if there was one thing this production failed to nail it was Richard. Please don’t get me wrong – Ralph Fiennes is an incredibly gifted, mesmerising actor who was never less than brilliant on stage, and gave a masterclass in villainy. A couple of key moments stood out – when Richard is affecting not to want the crown and Buckingham talks about his “gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” Fiennes turned and gave him a look that would strip paint before looking back at the Lord Mayor as though butter would not melt in his mouth. Equally, when Richard meets the young princes and exchanges sharp, double-meaninged phrases with them.
YORK. I pray you, uncle, give me this dagger.
GLOUCESTER. My dagger, little cousin? With all my heart!
Their horseplay turned him almost for a moment to murder – until he remembered his audience. I could have loved* a Richard that turned on a dime so quickly, had he but had a reason to move to villainy, or any kind of pleasure in it. But there seemed nothing behind his determination “to prove a villain” – it was a bald fact, not any kind of burning passion. This lack of delight meant that Richard’s anguish the night before Bosworth Field
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Had lost all its sting – there was no discernible change in his mood from the rest of the play. It makes it so much less the tragedy of Richard III (as described in the First Quarto) if Richard’s attitude doesn’t change through his triumph or disaster, even if it makes him (by Kipling’s lights at least) a man…
As expected, Ralph Fiennes was backed up by an extraordinary cast. Vanessa Redgrave, as Margaret, stole every scene she was in – clearly mad, clutching a plastic doll she cradled like a child, she was a commanding presence whose curses had the ringing authority of truth foretold. And as the curse fell like hammer-blows on the other women of the court, she tried to share her hard-won patience, as well as offering her fake-child solace to Queen Elizabeth when she lost her sons. Simply brilliant.
Scott Handy was great as Clarence – lucent, seeming all honour, compelling as he told his nightmare and pleaded for his life. Tom Canton excelled as Clarence’s jailer – their double-handed scene near the start of Act One just showed the sheer quality of the production. Tom Canton also reappeared (I love doubling-up!) as a wise and merciful Richmond at the end – no questions in this production about what kind of a king he would be.
I also rated Joanna Vanderham as a very young Lady Anne, making a clearly sexual bargain and soon realising that she was completely out of her depth and married to a very dangerous man. They had Richard say the line about her illness “Rumour it abroad That Anne, my wife, is very grievous sick” right in front of her – a truly hideous moment. There was a lot of thoughtful playing with the fourth wall and the staging in this way, from Richard’s lingering on stage for scenes he isn’t in to the ridiculous closeness of his and Richmond’s sleep, huddled over the same small table, before the final battle – very fitting for such a meta villain as Richard is.
The play started and ended with references to Richard’s body being found, and the set had a large earthen pit in the middle which sometimes yawned open, sometimes was covered up, but rarely seemed to add much value. Other parts of the staging, such as the chain curtain (very like the set for King and Country at the Barbican) were frankly off-putting. The costume was vaguely modern dress, and there was the occasional great use of modern technology – characters delivering the news from their mobile phones, when the murderers brought polaroids of the dead princes in the tower. But this made the more medieval aspects – the overly long coronation scene, strapping on historic armour** for the battle – seem anachronous – an unusual position to be in, given the clear framing that all this had happened in the past.
Aside from the quality singing in the coronation scene, the only other music was harsh, discordant scene-changing cues which served (deliberately I am sure) to set my teeth on edge. There were other touches in the staging I liked – the lighted skulls, increasing in number as Richard carves his way to the throne, the dark palate, only King Edward and the young princes appearing outside a spectrum ranging from black to very dark red***, the slow, lingering horror of waiting as Clarence’s murders filled an oil drum on stage to drown him in**** and the red gloves the killers all wore to carry out their deeds.
There was a lot to like in this production; even more to appreciate if you consider the risks they took which didn’t always pay off. Like the man himself, it was both daring, bold, and venturous; and subtle, sly, and bloody.
* Which is to say, loathed but in a deeply appreciative way
** Complete with extra lump for Richard’s hump – which was not insubstantial. Ralph Fiennes played Richard permanently doubled over, with a pronounced limp which required a cane at the start of the play but didn’t seem to stop him fighting at the end (was this meant to imply Richard was exaggerating his infirmity at the start, or the production just didn’t think about what was actually wrong with him?) and a truly, marvellously disgusting right hand, mostly kept under wraps but revealed as a deformed lump with barely identifiable digits.
*** And Vanessa Redgrave’s boiler suit.
**** A horribly effective way to make us all share his increasing dread.