June 29, 2016

Ralph Fiennes Next in Line as Richard III and No One Can Take His Crown

Ralph Fiennes takes on the psychopathology of Shakespeare's most notorious villain, Richard III, photo courtesy of Miles Aldridge
             Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Almeida Theatre, under the masterful vision of Artistic Director Rupert Goold, is the hottest ticket in town at the moment. If you can get your hands on one, that is. The Almeida, with its capacity to seat 325 people, makes this reworking of Shakespeare a particular rarity in its intimate access to stars of such high caliber. It's been 16 years since Ralph Fiennes stepped foot on the Almeida's stage. He's back and better than ever to take on Shakespeare’s most notorious villain and lead antagonist, who will do whatever it takes, and kill whomever it takes, in his pursuit of the British throne. With Vanessa Redgrave making her Almeida debut playing Queen Margaret, it’s a match made in theatre royalty.

 Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             The play begins on an excavation site, where a curved spine is unearthed – a reference to the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s bones in a Leicester car park. The spine soon is reanimated and reattached to its rightful owner, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Fiennes is given a protruding “S”-shaped spine, which pokes through his clothes and even his armor. He has also adopted a limp and a disfigured, unusable, right hand. These new adjustments haven’t come without taking their toll on the actor, who confessed to Radio 4’s Front Row, “I’ve got a lot of tension in my left side. I’m monitoring it day by day, because it’s three hours where you’re putting your spine out of true…I’m not in pain, but I’m aware.”

Ralph Fiennes tries his new spine on for size, photo courtesy of Miles Aldridge
             Hildegard Bechtler’s set design illuminates the driving force of the play, the king’s crown, at the back of the stage, where it sits cloaked in a distinct sense of foreboding. From the same wall, skulls emerge one by one as physical trophies of the lives lost to Richard’s hit list. With even the tiniest of touches, the chainmail curtain clinks and sways, rising and falling to reveal silhouettes in a shadowy kingdom where no one is safe.    

             What Fiennes delivers with razor-sharp precision throughout his performance is the ability to turn on the audience at a moment’s notice. Fiennes brings charm and humor to the role, so much so that we almost forget about Richard’s murderous intent. Well, until he snaps. He has us laughing one minute and recoiling in horror the next. One of the most chilling moments occurs when he fixates his frosty gaze on the audience and his insincere smile morphs into a scowl. Holding a rosary in his hand, Richard raises a clenched fist, the cross dangling helplessly in his crushing grip.

 Richard is triumphant in gaining the crown, but the skulls symbolize at what cost, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             In his Radio 4 interview, Fiennes warned, “I don’t want the audience to escape into a relaxation of humor.” With Fiennes’ calculated portrayal of Richard, and because we can read his every micro expression and often meet his steely stare, he needn’t worry. He is terrifying enough to make me shrink in my seat when he passes by in the aisle. I’m reminded of scary films, where most people’s coping mechanism is to laugh, especially when viewing them in the public setting of a movie theatre. Why then, are their hands clammy or their faces pale?

             It is this same unease, this false sense of security, that Fiennes lulls us into when he addresses the audience, cajoling us to laugh, but then condemning us for doing so. Richard’s threats are not empty; they are in fact so bold that they are delivered to his rivals’ faces. He licks William, Lord Hastings’ (James Garnon) blood from the chopping block. His lascivious advances on Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) and his rape of Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin) are nothing short of uncomfortable. No, this is certainly not a man in whose company we can relax, even with humor. It’s Fiennes doing what he does best: playing a good baddie.

The cast of Richard III mostly wore modern dress, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             I spoke with Thomas Weaver, Associate Artistic Director of Gamut Theatre Group in Pennsylvania in the United States, who was visiting London for the very first time. He waited from 4pm at the Almeida Theatre to get a ticket for the 7pm showing. As someone who often puts on Shakespeare plays and has seen his fair share of them, including various productions of Richard III, I asked him what he thought about Fiennes taking on the role: “He wasn’t playing a villain; he just was a villain. There was an honesty to it. It just felt natural. He was saying, 'You may be watching me seduce this woman, but don’t forget who I am.’”

             Redgrave forces you to sit up and listen when she makes her infrequent but powerful appearances as Queen Margaret. She seems to stealthily creep up out of nowhere, issuing her curses, before she shrinks away again into the darkness. The self-proclaimed “prophetess” clutches and coos at a baby doll and wears a boiler suit, giving the impression of someone who’s not “all there.” When Richard deflates the doll’s head in his hand in an attempt to stop her truthful warnings, Queen Margaret might be the sanest person in the room.

Richard loses his temper with Queen Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave), photo courtesy of Alastair Muir
             Richard III is set in a time period of which we are not certain. It seemingly unfolds in a contemporary age, with the cast in modern dress. The sharp suits make them look like members of the mafia – stylishly nefarious. Richard’s henchmen (Daniel Cerqueira as Catesby and Mark Hadfield as Ratcliffe), with their blood red gloves, have distinctly East End London accents. Richard pops a Berocca into a glass, which effervesces into a familiar fit of orange. Phones are cleverly used as a means to communicate and distribute information, much as we would show a friend photos from last night on ours. Then, the final scene introduces armor and swords, and we are transported to a far more distant time.

When the gloves come out, you know Catesby (Daniel Cerqueira) and Ratcliffe (Mark Hadfield) are up to no good, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             As Richard dies and plunges back into the grave where he came from, the excavation team returns. There he will lie, until he is rediscovered (with the same amount of enthusiasm) time and time again by audiences the world over.

We end where we began: Richard's final resting place, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Richard III is playing at the Almeida Theatre until August 6th, but due to high demand, you might have to get a little creative and be a little tenacious when it comes to securing a ticket. Find out what your options are here.

             The company will be taking the production to Crotia for the Kazaliste Ulysses Festival from August 11th – 13th. Almeida Theatre Live is being launched in partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment. Cinemas around the world will have the opportunity to see Richard III broadcast on July 21st. For your nearest screening and to book tickets, visit the website here.

This gives me goosebumps...

No comments:

Post a Comment