Richard III, review of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Friday, June 17, 2016
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

    Fiennes is gruesomely compelling

    After King Charles III -- a vividly imagined, Shakespearean-like version of what could happen when Charles finally ascends to the throne that was written in blank verse -- the Almeida's artistic director Rupert Goold now tackles the real deal: Richard III. They could be companion pieces, showing the behind-the-scenes machinations and intrigue of a man determined to take his place on the throne, and the fall-out of what happens when he does.

    But there's also an echo of another more recent Almeida show: Leo Butler's Boy also had areas of the stage taped off -- and a casual murder -- across its path. Here Goold frames his production at the archaeological dig that took place in a car park in Leicester in 2012 that uncovered Richard III's final burial place. That same deep hole being dug at in the stage will later become one of the assassination sites for Richard's serial victims.

    The show is full of arresting images and parallels like that.  But this utterly brilliant, chillingly contemporary production resonates with power -- alternately teasing and terrifying -- thanks to the alarmingly insinuating performance of Ralph Fiennes in the title role.

    The actor, who has previously played the title role of Chekhov's Ivanov on this stage, Hamlet for the Almeida at Hackney Empire and Richard II and Coriolanus for the Almeida at the temporary Gainsborough Studios, has lately been making an admirable commitment to returning to the theatre: this is his third major role in less than 18 months, following Shaw's Man and Superman at the National in February 2015 and then Ibsen's The Master Builder in February 2016. I'm not quite sure how he has the time, given that he's in every other film being released at the moment, from Hail Caesar! and A Bigger Splash to Spectre and Grand Budapest Hotel.

    He's an actor who likes to command the stage, and after the high, wide open spaces of the National's Lyttelton and Old Vic, he is even bigger in the intimate confines of the Almeida. But he is gruesomely compelling, bringing unexpected gallows humour and real violence to the role as he not only commits casual executions but also rapes Queen Elizabeth (Aislin McGuckin) whose daughter he intends to marry.

    Goold surrounds him with ace actors that include Finbar Lynch as Buckingham, Scott Handy as Clarence, Mark Hadfield as the Lord Mayor and Joanna Vanderham as Lady Anne, but there's a special and thrilling additional aura provided by the coup of casting stage and film veteran Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret.

    As with Fiennes himself, here's an actor that earned her stripes on the stage before becoming a major film star; but what's so thrilling about the British theatre is its endless allure to bring them back home to the stage where they began. Right now, Kenneth Branagh is also testament to this with his season at the Garrick, while earlier this year we also saw Chiwetel Ejiofor back at the National. Long may this trend continue; and Fiennes is one of the most loyal of all to the stage. It's his true home.

Looking for the best seats...