Theatre 2016 – Richard III, the Almeida, London

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Saturday, August 6th 2016 – Richard III, Almeida Theatre, London

One of the things we promised ourselves now we’re not spending every spare moment on motor racing was that we would do more in the way of music and theatre with the time we gained back. And so, early this year, we started looking to see what was scheduled for the year. It being 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and both of us being enthusiastic Shakespeare lovers, we have been largely concentrating on Shakespeare plays this year.

To add to the attraction, being Ricardians, we are very well-acquainted with Richard III as a work. I’ve lost count of the number of productions we have seen over the years, and no matter how much we view it as Tudor propaganda, we’re always game for another production. This one having Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave in it was too much to resist, particularly as Redgrave is not a young woman now and may not be able to act on stage for much longer (I hope she can but at 79 years old no one would blame her if she chose to sit at home and put her feet up). Tickets were duly procured and stored away and so we found ourselves heading for the Almeida one sunny Saturday afternoon. We always opt for matinees simply to avoid the stress of worrying over getting the last train back to Milton Keynes, and it enables us to go somewhere nice for dinner afterwards and still make it home before midnight.

I’d never been to the Almeida before and thus had no idea what it would be like. As it turns out, it’s a very intimate sort of space, almost on a par with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for just how small the space is and how close the audience are to the action. We had our own row (Row 6) with just two paying seats and a space for the usher, and although someone very tall sat in front of me, I was able to politely persuade him to swap with his friend, so instead there was a short woman sitting in front of me. That helped a lot (after my Savonlinna opera experience a few weeks back when the biggest man in Finland sat in front of me I couldn’t cope with that for a second time).

The performance began with a scene recreating the recent archaeological dig in Leicester that unearthed Richard’s remains, which was a clever touch in some ways, though it did possibly give rather too much credence to what followed. As I say as far as I;m concerned the play is a piece of propaganda, even though it’s still a very good play. Anyway, the actors mostly entered from various parts of the auditorium, which was somewhat startling though nothing will ever startle me in a theatre as much as Jonathan Pryce in 1978 in the RSC Stratford production of “The Taming of the Shrew” where he entered through the main body of the theatre as a drunk looking to start a fight. That really was startling…

Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes in Richard III. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

The production was in modern dress although with minimal props, including a suitably medieval throne, and I was pleased to note that some of the things that had been cut in the last production we saw (such as the strawberry scene) had been put back. Of the performances, Redgrave was good as Margaret, still vocally strong if slightly wobbly on her feet, but Fiennes may well be the second best Richard I’ve seen, the best still being Anthony Sher at the Barbican back in 1984 although the ESC’s version in the late 1980s was pretty damn good too, Andrew Jarvis making a very effective job of presenting a younger version of the character than we normally see.

My only reservations about the production as a whole were two, one major and one minor. The minor one first; I’m still struggling to make sense of the decision to use modern dress all the way through to the battle scenes at the end, where suddenly we had actors in greater or lesser amounts of armour. Why? It really didn’t make a lot of sense, either aesthetically or artistically to me. Granted Richmond’s armour was very pretty and shiny (party armour anyone?) but it was out of synch with the rest of the costuming, as was Richard’s armour. I liked the way they tied the denouement in with the results of the archaeological dig though. Now for the major gripe; why did the producer feel the need to have Richard rape Elizabeth Woodville (Aislín McGuckin in a devastatingly good performance)? There was no need. It’s not in the play. We already know the man is a villain by then. It doesn’t make him seem much worse, and it jars in that it’s completely unnecessary and as I say not part of the play.

Of the other actors, I was particularly impressed by a very smooth Buckingham, portrayed by Finbar Lynch as the consummate politician, slippery as an eel, but stunned when it all goes wrong and Richard turns on him. In addition James Garnon made a splendid Hastings, not believing he was in trouble until it became too late to extricate himself, trapped by his own scepticism.

The standing ovation at the end was well-deserved and had been more than earned by pretty much everyone on stage. It was exhausting just being in the audience so heaven knows how wrung out the cast felt. And they had to do it all again that evening!

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