The Mad Dog is Dead

Simon Russell Beale, who knows a thing or two about Shakespearean theatre, seemed to enjoy this production of Richard III from his seat immediately in front of us.

Almost as long as Richard’s reign, this production at the Almeida didn’t have the pace of many recent productions. It did seem to have every single last line that Shakespeare penned (plumed?) but that didn’t detract from the power and menace of the piece.

With an audience used to the full War of the Roses tale being built in the three plays of the Hollow Crown, this production had to carefully bring people up to speed with the monster Gloucester who was to become the tyrant King Richard III. This was elegantly achieved from the very opening scenes of the modern day excavation of Richard’s remains from a car park, complete with BBC voice over. A combination of modern day dress and mobile phones with period armour and swords gave a broad landscape on which to paint this brutal tale.

Finbar Lynch played Buckingham, Richard’s right hand thug, with a stylish authority – right up to the point he was shot in back for daring to be hesitant in ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower. A lesson for all right hand thugs who seek to promote their master above their level of competence.

And that, of course, is Richard’s great failing. He seizes power because he can. He enjoys the game of plotting against his enemies, friends and family. He uses all means, fair and foul (well, actually, foul and foul) to remove obstacles from his path to – nowhere. With no plan other than to be King, no plan to govern, no plan of action at home or overseas, and certainly no broad appeal other than to his increasingly narrow band of thugs, he simply wanted to be the King.

As is customary these days Ralph Fiennes played the ambitious Duke of Gloucester partly for laughs, at least in the first half. But the laughs were often cut short by yet another death on his murderous rise to the top. Unusually, all the murders took place in plain view, again adding to the running time but making sure no-one was left in any illusion about the depravity of the central character. The only death scene which struck a slightly sour note – maybe the wine was off  – was the drowning of the Duke of Clarence in the barrel of Malmsey. The obviously emptying empty barrel resonated, not with the gurgles of a drowning man trying to gasp for air, but the heaving breathing of an actor stuffed head first into a small barrel. Obviously it is competing with the Martin Freeman production where Clarence was drowned – very convincingly – in a fish tank but it was still a petty poor effort.

As Fiennes’ Richard gathered momentum to his thankfully inevitable destruction at Bosworth Field, friends and foe joined forces to bring this particular experiment to a merciful end. And one of the good things about this play is when the end comes it is short – nasty and brutish, but mainly short. No drawn out death speeches.

Apart from Fiennes and Lynch the standout performances came from the female leads. In the play they are threatened, bullied, beaten and raped. They have their husbands and sons murdered. But they are the constant reminder to Richard that he is vulnerable to power and they provide the driving force to the opposition which brings his short region to an end. In particular Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret command the stage.

Not the best Richard I’ve seen – Martin Freeman on stage and Cumberbatch in the Hollow Crown are difficult to beat – but certainly up there. But when Ralph Fiennes does play for laughs, whether in a serious piece or a period comedy, I occasionally get the unnerving feeling that I’m watching Rigsby from Rising Damp – a TV sitcom of a generation ago for younger readers. I was tempted to ask Simon Russell Beale if he felt the same.


Richard III – Some like it Cold

Freeman Richard III

I never expect much from the Telegraph.

When their theatre reviewer says that Martin Freeman playing Richard III is like “sending a boy to do a man’s work” they fail to reach even that lowly expectation. This was, in fact, a stunning performance of real power. This Richard III sets out his coup within a coup in a stark, relatively modern setting. The programme notes refer to some modern history which influenced some of the thinking of the production – but this was never overtly evident in the staging and direction of this simple and direct power grab.

It looked and felt like any country which had not yet completed the struggle from dictatorship or dictatorial monarchy to democracy. A pretty accurate rendition of the 15th century.

Freeman’s Richard was delivered with a cold blooded ruthlessness which has been lacking in some recent versions. The attempt to make Richard seem victim rather than villain has no place in this production. The rather unbelievable seduction of his murdered brother’s wife, Ann Neville, often seen in modern productions is swept away. This Richard makes clear the benefits of marriage and by implication the contrary. Ann quickly recognises which way the wind blows. And it blows cold and strong.

Unfortunately – for her rather than the audience – she makes the usual error of failing to take up the offer of butchering Richard with his own knife when she is offered the chance.

The cramped space of the Trafalgar Studio makes this a play where you are literally on top of the action. And yet that small space allows the actors and the action to easily describe the locations from the intimate rooms of conspiracy to the expanse of Bosworth Field.

Giving a 20th century look to this war of Lancaster and York means this was full on Guns’n’Roses. But as always some historical elements remain. Knives give the requisite amount of blood that can’t quite be fulfilled by a Walther PPK. And the amount of blood was prodigious. Usually the result of off-stage murders which resulted in the bloody murderer, bloody ghost, or bloody severed head appearing on-stage. In one on-stage murder, the fountain of blood justified the front four rows of the tiered seats donning the splatter gowns at the break. A shame that a few people assumed the bloody havoc would be restricted to the final battle of Bosworth. Oops.

This was the most spectacular blood and guts scene, but each murder whether on or off-stage was represented with chilling brutality. The drowning of Clarence in an office fish-tank – complete with live goldfish – was skilfully and realistically enacted. The one-handed strangling of Ann by Richard full of terror.

Although Freeman’s was a cold blooded performance of ruthless ambition, some of it was delivered with genuinely comic humour. If only Richmond had declared in the final blade against pistol confrontation with Richard, “Call that a knife? This is a knife.” the evening would have been complete.

As it turned out the pistol saved us from the one failing of almost every Shakespearean production – the lingering death. No chance here for Freeman to stagger around bleeding from multiple wounds. He had scarcely finished pleading for a new horse when he was dropped stone dead with a single shot. A fitting end for this Richard. Straightforwardly ruthless. Straightforwardly dead.