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At his menacing best: Ralph Fiennes in “Richard III” (©Marc Brenner)


Richard III is such a juicy part of villainy (16 slayings at the behest of the royal serial killer, give or take) that it offers a surfeit of dark delights to an incumbent. Outstanding ones have included Ian McKellen as a 1930s fascist dictator in the 1996 TV version and more recently Kevin Spacey’s wry, self-loathing impostor, inviting the audience to collude, in the knowledge that bad behaviour is infinitely more enjoyable to watch than good.

Rupert Goold’s production at Islington’s Almeida begins by invoking the recent discovery of the tyrant’s bones under a Leicester car park — a canny suggestion that what we are to watch is not divorced from our world, but part of the fragmented past on which our own fragile kingdom is built.

Ralph Fiennes is the “foul bunch-backed toad” without the redeeming wit or mischief of the part, a stripped-down version of Richard’s evil to pure psychopathy. The strength of this is that it shows us the unsparing structure of the drama: a quest for power turned charnel house. Fiennes at his menacing best is terrifying, as fans of his portrayal of a mournfully depressive gangster in In Bruges and the camp commandant in Schindler’s List will recall.

When one of the young princes leaps on his hump, hurting both his deformed frame and his vanity, the swordplay that follows is a mere inch from murder, and the line, “So wise so young, they say, do ne’er live long” is a knell of doom for the spry youngsters. A gecko-like transition occurs too when Buckingham (a greasy Finbar Lynch), as his lackey, urges him on to the murder of the young princes to resist “gentle, kind, effeminate remorse”. At the word “effeminate” Fiennes’s expression shoots from smug indulgence to furious resentment.

This Richard’s pursuit of the crown is utterly joyless, more motivated by the pleasure of plotting a killing than of ruling. Goold’s strength is in turning the meaning of Shakespeare’s scenes just a few degrees in a new direction so that we observe a familiar moment with fresh eyes. In a stand-out scene, Richard finally ascends the throne with his kingly garment hanging sloppily off his asymmetric shoulder — a clear echo of the “I do dress me in borrowed robes” from Macbeth — and hurls the crown disconsolately over the back of the royal seat, while his  temporary wife Anne (Joanna Vanderham) stands dejectedly by.

The play allows for interpretation of Richard’s unsatisfied sexuality, and Goold goes full tilt for the view of him as misogynist as well as misanthrope. In the wooing of the luckless Anne, Richard grabs her between the thighs and turns an embrace into a slap. By the time he moves on to Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin) to extort her daughter’s hand, it’s in the form of a full-on rape. That liberty with the text strays too far for good taste or judgment. If adaptations foist a rape on to a play in which every marriage is in effect a rape, by virtue of being coerced, there had better be good reason for it, and in this instance there is not. What Richard wants is to keep securing his endangered kingdom and get a male heir — sex with his prospective mother-in-law is not a motivation. Vanessa Redgrave reinterprets bereft Margaret as a dazed old woman, clutching a doll in memory of her offspring and appearing more like a Greek prophetess of downfall than a raging discarded queen.

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