No beast so fierce: Richard III lives, on stage in Almeida’s film
In this cinematic Shakespeare’s Richard III from London’s Almeida Theater, the production opens with an open grave, and archaeological dig from which the twisted backbone of the real Richard III held up to light. Sliding glass panels slide over the grave, covering it for the scenes to follow. But the grave is always in sight, open and waiting.
It takes a moment to become accustomed to the black business suits, the starkly modern lighting, and the cell phones, all of them a jarring imposition of the modern on to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan phrasing. But it is only a moment, and we are caught up in a world of treachery, deceit, and hunger for power not so different from the one we inhabit today.
Ralph Fiennes is impeccably cast. From the moment he hobbles onstage, drooling and bent, he is King Richard III, and evil incarnate is not long in showing his face. His brother Edward is the new king, weak of constitution, an easy target for the hunchback who would be king. When minions carry onstage the shrouded bones of King Henry VI, dead like his son Edward the Prince of Wales, by Richard’s hand. The widow Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) has entered with the cortege to mourn her loss, and here follows one of the most sexually charged seductions committed to cinema. One mad with grief, one simply insane, they spit and fight with mounting fury, until the one with no reason prevails. There is no consummation here, but Richard has shown his hand—he will stop at nothing to satisfy the hunger of his insatiable desire for dominance.
Every scene that now unfolds reveals the breadth of that hunger, and the depth of his duplicity. The deceit is unrelenting. No one is spared, neither the innocents caught up in his deceit, nor his willing accomplices in all this. His own brother Clarence, his young nephews and heirs to the throne, Lady Anne who he seduced and slew, even his loyal henchmen Hastings and Buckingham, one by one they fall to his hand. Victims innocent or led by their own treachery to Richard’s hand. Only Richmond and Stanley get away.
It is the women who give this play its touches of humanity. They see what the men cannot, and love what no man can. Aislίn McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth, widow of Henry and the mother of Lady Anne, especially stands up to the ogre, face to face and voice to voice in the long and grueling scene that ends in her rape. The monster stops at nothing. Dominance is everything to him, his beginning and his end. This is a lesson for our own times as well.
The claustrophobic set design helps to reinforce this point. Subtle hints abound. A background of round stone wall—the tower of London, the ultimate prison shielded at times by scrims and curtains—lit from a recessed corona above.
One point that was sorely missed was the one possible glimmer of redemption through self-awareness that at least becomes possible in Richard’s final soliloquy, “I am loved by no one, I love no one.” Absent this rare, almost touching possibility, his words become yet another rant of self-pity. The audience is too worn out by his slimy words to care anymore. This monster has no humanity at all, he has become not even just another monster in a cruel world, but a caricature of one.
In the final battle scene, Richmond of the halo of golden hair prevails. Richard fights with all the fury of his madness, but cannot save himself. Three times he offers up his kingdom for a horse, three times he is denied. He falls, face forward, into the waiting grave. England is saved and all will be well.
The film has shown but a few times at the Rafael, its brief run is now ended. It is well worth seeking out, in PBS listings or streaming video if available. It was made for the big screen, and best watched on the largest screen you can find. Its chilling conclusions on the uses of power cannot be overmagnified.
Theatrical Production: Almeida Theatre, London
Artistic Director Rupert Goold
Casting by Joyce Nettles
Run at the Almeida Theater in London June 7-August 6, 2016.
Review by: David Hirzel