Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 17 June 2016

Review: Richard III at the Almeida

Almeida Theatre ⋄ 7th June - 6th August 2016

“There’s an unpleasant trend in London theatre at the moment for using sexual violence against women to add a layer of edginess to a text.” Tracey Sinclair reviews Rupert Goold’s Richard III.

Tracey Sinclair
Richard III at the Almeida. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Richard III at the Almeida. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Artistic Director Rupert Goold’s Richard III is the inaugural production for the Almeida Theatre Live series – launched in July to compete with the National Theatre’s successful cinema screenings programme, and so undoubtedly a great project. On paper it’s a solid choice: a classic text with a well-known cast. But despite its undeniable star power, it’s a remarkably flat and lacklustre affair, marred by uneven performances and some odd directorial choices.

With an established reputation for playing the bad guy – he was freaking Voldemort, for God’s sake – Fiennes should be a shoo-in for such villainy, but while he has his moments, he takes an awfully long time to get going. Richard’s opening speech should co-opt the audience as co-conspirators, as witnesses to his genius, since he can afford to confide in no others: he’s seducing us before he turns to woo Anne. But Fiennes ambles through the first few scenes with neither passion nor particular conviction, and it takes almost to the interval before he regains the lost momentum. A few flashes of charm and menace aside, it’s an overly mannered and ultimately forgettable performance, which feels like a real shame, since on the rare occasions when it does click, we get a glimpse of something that could be rather special, a Richard who is cruel and capricious beneath the surface suavity.

Likewise, the much hyped Almeida debut of Vanessa Redgrave is a let-down. Her Margaret is cackling, unhinged crone, but there’s little real sense of pain or even gravitas to her appearances as she wanders the stage clutching a filthy doll. The other women fare no better: the always tricky wooing of Anne (Joanna Vanderham) is even less convincing than usual, with some random violence thrown in (and we’ll come back to that – oh, yes). While the scene is often played to reinforce the fact that Anne is relatively powerless and afraid (which makes her capitulation more believable) here she is reluctant until she gets a good slap, which she seems to find seductive, Richard’s winning move. This could be an interesting idea – that Anne is as much a player as Richard, and recognises and is attracted to a kindred spirit and political survivor – but it is never explored, as the character fizzles to nothing, so you’re just left assuming the director thought it would be cool to slap a woman and make her look like that was a sexy thing to do. The other women are similarly unmemorable: neither Susan Engel’s Duchess of York nor Aislin McGuckin’s Elizabeth convince.

Overall, in fact, the performances are patchy, seeming to only have two settings: utterly deadpan or shouty and hysterical, and in some cases the cast seemed less familiar with their lines than they should be. In fairness, this emotionless delivery is sometimes milked cleverly for laughs, and there are some nice scenes: Hastings (James Garnon) being clueless about his pending demise is a gem, and uses the contemporary setting smartly. The council meeting is also a standout, and once he settles into the role, Finbar Lynch is a sly delight as Buckingham.

Despite its problems, the production looks great, but again lacks internal coherence: there’s a sense of throwing things and seeing what sticks. The cast are in modern dress until the end, when they don traditional armour for seemingly no other reason than the shiny visuals: Richmond makes his first appearance in contemporary clothing but with a metal-covered arm, which distractingly gives him the air of having wandered in from the latest Captain America movie: he’s only some heavily applied smoky eyeshadow away from a cosplay gig as the Winter Soldier.

Set designer Hildegard Bechtler has clearly been boning up on Game of Thrones: the sparse, striking set has a stone wall slowly filling up with skulls and is dominated by a large, ominous throne. Unfortunately, though, the production has also taken on some of the TV’s shows worst habits, feeling the need to insert a completely gratuitous rape scene that is as nasty as it is pointless. There’s an unpleasant trend in London theatre at the moment for using sexual violence against women to add a layer of edginess to a text (Faustus, we’re looking at you) and here it just adds a further sour tang to a show that already seems to have no idea what to do with its women.

Richard III is on at the Almeida until 6th August 2016. Click here for more information. 

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Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Review: Richard III at the Almeida Show Info


Directed by Rupert Goold

Written by William Shakespeare

Cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, David Annen, Tom Canton, James Garnon, Mark Hadfield, Scott Handy, Finbar Lynch, Aislin McGuckin, Joseph Mydell, Joshua Riley, Lukas Rolfe, Joanna Vanderham

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