On Brittle Glass: Ralph Fiennes’ Richard III

at the Almeida Theatre, London, June – August, 2016

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

One night this spring, my eldest daughter and I stayed up half the night, US West Coast time, to snag tickets the moment they went on sale for this production. Knowing that the theatre was small and the stars big, we figured tickets would go fast. We even bought a membership in the Almeida so we could book a week early.

Two hours and untold server crashes later, we got ’em. At an incredibly affordable price, membership included.

And I’m delighted to report that our efforts were far from wasted. The Shakespearean highlight of our 2016 England trip during this, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, was easily our attendance at this fantastic, frightful, ferocious, and occasionally funny production, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave.

Almeida Theatre exterior_credit Philip Vile

Almeida Theatre, London, exterior_credit Philip Vile

The Almeida is a lovely little theatre, not much bigger than your typical Black Box. The director and actors took zestful advantage of the intimate space to infuse the brutalities depicted onstage with a visceral immediacy. At times the action felt as willfully invasive as the personality of the main character, who like the perverse villain Shakespeare wrote him to be, enjoys nothing so much as pulling off the outrageous in full view of a suborned audience. The ultimate narcissist.

 The company of Richard III_credit Marc Brenner

The company of Richard III_credit Marc Brenner

The Play before the Play

As we and others took seats, chatted, and sipped wine, a scene of a modern-day excavation was enacted quietly on stage. It was when one of the Hazmat-suited workers extracted a grotesque S-curved spinal cord out of the rectangular, grave-shaped hole in the stage that I knew that the scene was intended to depict the recent discovery of the real Richard III’s skeleton beneath a Leicester car park. By the time the curtain went up (metaphorically), a significant section of center stage front had become an open grave covered by a sheet of transparent glass over which the actors passed obliviously unawares.

This visionary staging set the play squarely in the open maw of violent death, claiming one victim after another and finally swallowing Richard himself, who for the better part of three hours walks, soliloquizes, conspires, rages, and murders, over his own grave.

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

The coup de grace comes in Act IV, when Richard, newly crowned but unable to enjoy his victory, even for a moment, proposes to further secure his “safety” by murdering the young Princes in the Tower. His heretofore ruthless chief-of-staff Buckingham balks at the deed—even he has a limit. Richard wheels by sheer bloody momentum into complete paranoia and a final vertiginous series of outrages. Declares Richard to his rapt audience:

I must be married to my brother’s daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye. 

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes (Richard, Duke of Gloucester)_credit Marc Brenner

Delivering his lines, Fiennes, front and center, glances briefly at the glass beneath his feet—the kind of theatrical setup-and-payoff moment we Groundlings live for.

Twisted 

Quick as a cat, Fiennes can turn on a dime. And like a force of malevolent nature, a tornado or a pandemic, he sweeps all before him in a performance that is singularly will- and intellect-driven. As Fiennes plays him, it is Richard’s mind and heart that are bent and misshapen. His withered, unruly body is a weapon to wield in his eternal war against…God knows what. Maybe God.

Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Margaret)_credit Marc Brenner

Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Margaret)_credit Marc Brenner

In the end, even this Force of Nature shows signs of brittleness. A crack in his soul is about to give way. The text suggests the Usurper may be about to succumb to a bout of conscience, late in the game, but I’d sooner call it an attack of superstition.

This Richard’s sudden last-act sleepless night of nightmare-ridden dread seems more like karmic whiplash than a subtle prick of conscience. Either way, it has no doubt been summoned by the hair-raising curses of the four women Richard has systematically destroyed in pursuit of the crown: his wife, his mother, Queen Elizabeth, and above all the half-mad and wholly entertaining Margaret.

The latter, the widow of the martyred Henry VI, haunts the court like a vengeful ghost with Tourette Syndrome. Played to the nines by an at once frail and Amazonian Vanessa Redgrave, aged 79, this Margaret, with her jabbing hex signs and horror-film penchant for creepy baby dolls in lieu of the child she has lost, would all but steal this show were it not for the tensile strength of the entire ensemble, and the brutally focused Fiennes.

Deep Casting

While the best regional theatre productions can equal and sometimes surpass those of New York and London, it is in the depth of the talent on a metropolitan stage that one often sees a difference. Every member of this ensemble was terrific. Scott Handy, still my favorite Horatio of all time, is a wonderfully pathetic (and truly conscience-stricken) Clarence; Daniel Cerqueira makes the loyal-to-the-last Catesby a real person, not just a royal tool; Susan Engel’s Duchess of York arcs from rigid, soldiering-on matron to howling Banshee in the space of a minute, convincingly; James Garnon’s hale-fellow/easily snookered Lord Hastings provides wincing comic relief as Richard piles one grisly political murder on top of another

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Almeida Artistic Director Rupert Goold’s seamless direction goes unnoticed, and I mean that as a high compliment. This is a production that just works. And absorbs.

I can now say I’ve been within spitting distance of two of the greatest actors of our time. Not bad for a couple hours of lost sleep and a very modest ticket price.

While nothing can replace the live theatre experience, we were delighted to learn that this production is being filmed and will be shown in select cinemas worldwide on July 21, 2016. Go see it!