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Ralph Fiennes is great in this slightly subdued take on Shakespeare's dastardly drama
Richard III will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide on July 21
Almeida boss Rupert Goold is a dastardly, swaggering showman whose most recent foray into Shakespeare – ‘The Merchant of Venice’, set in Las Vegas – was him at his divisive, OTT best.
But perhaps because Sam Mendes already did an excessive, Gooldian ‘Richard III’ at the Old Vic a couple of years back, this stab at The Bard’s most villainous monarch is a little subdued by the director's standards.
Much about it is great, mind, not least big star Ralph Fiennes in the lead role. Following the show’s one true bravura sequence, in which Richard’s body is excavated from underneath a car park in modern day Leicester, Fiennes appears as a dapperly-dressed master of ceremonies. Rarely leaving the stage, the play at first proceeds like a series of flashbacks narrated by Richard. Rage simmers away under his polite facade, occasionally bubbling to the fore. But you can also sense his real embarrassment and mortification at his deformed body; and also that his soliloquising is an like a sort of pathetic attempt to justify himself to us. You also immediately sense where the fault lines will lie in his relationship with his right hand man: Finbar Lynch’s suave, confident Buckingham is everything Fiennes’s Richard is not.
There’s a fine sense of the politicking of the English court, a feeling that at the very least people are happy to turn a blind eye to Richard’s murdering of his rivals. It’s not until Richard – installed as Lord Protector – has his child charges Edward and Richard murdered that he finally becomes a pariah.
Elsewhere, things are less coherent. Living legend Vanessa Redgrave is frittered as a very odd Queen Margaret, who wanders around in a battered jumpsuit clutching a doll. The women generally feel a bit poorly served by Goold’s production, especially Aislin McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, who is raped by Richard in a shockingly nasty addition to the play – even the many deaths are pretty restrained by comparison.
There’s a lot to chew on and think about, a great central performance, and certainly the audacious bookending scenes cap a pretty good year for Leicester. But in a horribly fraught moment in British politics, I can’t help but feel this play should have a bit more to say: it’s difficult to discern a clear, bold vision from a director who normally specialises in them.