Remember all the times at school you were told that Shakespeare’s plays have universal themes that cut across time and culture? And you sat there thinking “yeah, right….” well those teachers were so right- and the new production from the Almeida of Richard III which was screened tonight demonstrates it in bucketloads.
No one could have had any idea how relevant, how close to the truth this production could be to the reality of 2016’s summer of politics, terrorism and divided nations when it was planned. But the fact is you cannot get away from the parallels- the manipulation and twists and turns of Brexit, the gunning down of innocents, the pride and fall of political machinations, the double crossing and switching of sides- it’s all there.
I have a bit of a penchant for Shakespeare updated- the contemporary feel, the sparse but striking set, the references throughout the play to the recent rediscovery of Richard’s skeleton, all added an immediacy, an intimacy, a way of drawing in the audience. And when Richard looks for his assassin, Tyrell, in the audience and you wonder, even while watching at the cinema, whether someone is sitting next to him/her – it so strongly reminds me of sitting on the Tube as a teenager and wondering if the rucksack was a bomb- and now in 21st century Britain, it’s is he/she a suicide bomber? Who can we trust? And when we stop trusting we go mad.
And Richard, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, is shown in a horribly new light in the creepy, sinister, totally obsessed with power, jealous, angry, verging towards a form of madness by the end of the play- a sociopath who has no idea and no interest in behaving within any of the normal boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, and yet sexy and somehow able to manipulate both the men, and women (most of whom he sleeps with or assaults) around him. The character’s wit and intelligence are in a constant internal battle with his pent up frustrations of being the unattractive youngest brother, the one with the disability, with the chip on his shoulder- and like so many people with disadvantages, he has to work extra hard to get what he wants, and he works extra nastily.
Another aspect of the play which worked so well was partly due to the very strong acting of the women characters. I’m not always a fan of Vanessa Redgrave- but here, as Queen Margaret she was deadpan, spewing out curses not as an hysteric but almost as the truth, as facts. And Susan Engel as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, had an immense power, an aura about her- sometimes you feel that she’s a weak character- here she was strong. And of course seeing older women actors having something really meaty to act, and being taken seriously on stage, is a joy. Joanna Vanderham as Lady Anne I wasn’t so convinced by. I saw her in The Dazzle where she lived up to the title so I know she can do much more. Lady Anne is a difficult part to play- there’s not a lot of it and she is very much a victim, but it felt as if there was something lacking. However, Aislin McGuckin, as Queen Elizabeth, created a depth of character- you felt for her throughout as she lost her husband, her children, her dignity.
The women in Richard are the victims of war, of bloodlust, but other than Lady Anne, they are survivors, unlike many of the male characters, most of whom are killed by the close. We are left with the Earl of Richmond, who we all know, as did Shakespeare’s audience, would become Henry VII, the saviour of the English, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. The political rhetoric, the Murdochisation of the tale, overtly communicated by the winners, completes the play and leaves us with a very sour taste in our mouths as we recognise the traits of those we see, jostling to become the political elite, in the media today.