Richard III, Almeida Theatre, review: ‘Ralph Fiennes never overplays in pared back production’

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Picture: Mark Brenner

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Picture: Mark Brenner - Credit: Archant

Director Rupert Goold launches his Richard III with the 2012 excavation of Richard’s remains from the Leicester car park accompanied by a reportage voice-over to highlight the story’s contemporary relevance.

The emphasis is on Richard as a brilliant tactician, played in a finely paced performance by Ralph Fiennes.

Operating within a court rendered with razor-sharp visual detail, this is a world where every move is noted and a relentless eye on self-presentation is the way to survive.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is awe-inspiring: an enormous dome looms over the Yorkist court and dimensions open out and recede as illuminated partitions become magical gossamer threads then prison chains. Sound is used sparely but effects mount as screeching chains register the escalating murder count.

This is a pared back production - the cast is dressed in trendy black – and an exact period is left ambiguous with swords used in battle and mobile phones used to advance plot.

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As Richard III, Fiennes steers clear of playing the sympathy card and revels in the king as misanthrope; he’s pragmatic and persuasive, lethal with his direct gaze and obsequious smile and his comic timing is deadly - impatient hand flicks and wry appeals to the audience are never overplayed.

There’s strong support from the cast, in particular Finbar Lynch as the Duke of Buckingham and Aislin McGuckin as brittle Queen Elizabeth.

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Goold’s predilection for a stylized aesthetic results in some flashy touches: red leather gloves donned by murderers, the skeleton motif is heavily deployed as skulls mount up on the back brick wall.

Vanessa Redgrave is frail and touching, if underused, as grieving Queen Margaret with an unnecessary baby doll to nurse.

While the elegance and control of the production creates distance, seeing Fiennes and Redgrave together in the intimate Almeida space is a real pleasure.

Richard III is at The Almeida

Rating: 4/5 stars

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