By James Karas
The Almeida Theatre’s Richard III directed by Rupert Goold is a powerful production that seethes with violence and gives us Shakespeare at his best.
In 2012 the bones of the murderous king were found in a parking lot in Leicester, England. Goold uses the grave where the bones were found as the central image in his production. The rectangular hole in the ground is visible throughout the performance and is a convenient place to dump some of Richard’s hapless victims.
The dominant colour of the production is black and there is scant scenery. The characters speak on a black background with some exceptions as when the throne is visible. The characters wear modern dress and occasionally use cell phones.
Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Photo: Marc Brenner
Ralph Fiennes is a powerful, vicious and malevolent Richard. He speaks in measured tones that exude violence and imminent danger for anyone who dares disagree with the ambitious duke who must dispose his brother and his nephews and bludgeon his way to the throne of England. He does. Richard is also a liar and a consummate actor.
He proves the latter attributes in the opening scenes of the play where he pretends to support his brother while plotting to kill him and he seduces Lady Ann (Joanna Vanderham), the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, the son of King Henry VI both of whom Richard killed. She is following the coffin of Henry VI and Richard convinces her that he loves her.
Vanderham stands her ground and spews insults and curses at her husband’s killer in a superb performance but she does not stand a chance against the lewd Richard who grabs her Trump-style, marries her and subsequently discards her like a used piece of furniture.
Richard III has three other marvelous roles for woman. Vanessa Redgrave appears as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. The queen is an old and bitter woman whose husband was deposed by the House of York in the civil war and she curses Richard roundly.
The Duchess of York (Susan Engel) is the mother of Richard who kills her son Clarence and her grandchildren in order to gain the throne. The pain of a mother is written on Engel’s fine face in this moving performance.
Susan Engel and Vanessa Redgrave in Richard III. Photo: Marc Brenner
The best part may well be that of Queen Elizabeth, the wife and later widow of King Edward IV. Her sons are heirs to the throne until their uncle Richard has them murdered and gains the crown. The ruthless Richard III suggests that he marry the Queen’s daughter, his niece and the sister of the murdered princes. In a superb performance, Aislin McGuckin as the Queen confronts Richard until he strikes back and rapes her in a scene of ultimate horror.
Finbar Lynch plays a masterful, greedy and ambitious Duke of Buckingham but his evil has limits and he ends up in the grave that occupies center-stage of the production.
Goold has dispensed with a number of characters of the play and made the plot more taut and dramatic. There are no crowd scenes and most of the action is done in close-ups. The actors speak in measured tones, pronouncing, indeed enunciating every syllable and they are a joy to hear.
Watching Richard III the day after the American presidential elections made comparisons between the fifteenth century king and Donald Trump inevitable. They are both consummate liars, treat women with contempt, handle their adversaries with unbridled viciousness and stop at nothing to gain their ends. Richard III actually kills while Trump engages in character assassination. They are narcissistic, manipulative and utterly ruthless.
They have their toadies and surrogates (Duke of Buckingham, Mayor of London, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich) who not so much support the moral swamp of their leader as add to it.
Richard III spread rumours that his brother, Edward IV was illegitimate as are the young princes and heirs to the throne. Trump insists that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and utters so many egregious lies that the truth becomes a questionable commodity.
The similarities accumulate as we watch the triumph of misogyny, xenophobia, lying, and the lack of even a modicum of decency.
Richard III by William Shakespeare in a production from the Almeida Theatre, London, was shown at the Cineplex Cinema, Yonge-Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ontario and other Cineplex Cinemas on November 9, 2016. It will be shown again on December 4, 2016 in select venues. www.cineplex.com