Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 7th July 2016.
Many critics and audience members at present rate Rupert Goold's Almeida highly. I, on the other hand, don't think I've seen a really exceptional show there since Our Town (and that was an American import). This latest effort sees Goold returning to Shakespeare where again he has often received high praise from others and hasn't especially impressed me. This latest effort does not change my mind.
As a production it is muddled. The first problem is that Goold can't make his mind up about when we are (where is also far from clear). Guns are mingled unconvincingly with swords, modern suits with armour. The set is little help. It is largely minimalist – and those items which are present like the throne on a platform at the back and the overdone skulls in the wall add little. Goold's main idea is to play it all over Richard's grave (the action is framed by its recent excavation, an unconvincing device). During most of the second half the grave is uncovered and sits centre stage while various protagonists struggle to navigate their way around it, or drop handfuls of earth into it, and I kept wondering whether somebody was going to fall in by accident. That most characters in this play are teetering on the edge of the grave, and many of them do indeed end up in it, is clear enough without piling on the symbolism. A further effect of all this is, as is too often the case with productions of the Histories, a failure to convince that a kingdom is at stake.
Goold also does not distinguish himself in terms of his direction of people. There's rarely that sense of electricity through physical contact, or that generation of tension through particular placings which great productions possess. Some of Goold's decisions are just bizarre, the unconvincing rape of Queen Elizabeth most notably. Overall visions of plays can be disastrous, but I came out of this feeling Goold didn't have anything much to say at all. The one idea I could discern is mistaken – that is that in the first half Goold seems to be under the misapprehension that he is directing a comedy. Now it is true that Richard has plenty of blackly comic lines but many of them are underpinned by something more sinister and threatening – too often the production does not seem aware of this. This contributes to the failure to convince that meaningful things are at stake in the drama, and to making the violence curiously unthreatening.
Not being a fan of Goold, my main reason for seeing this was Ralph Fiennes as Richard III having been enormously impressed by him in the NT Man and Superman and the Old Vic Master Builder. Unfortunately, this performance is not in the same league. Fiennes generally gives a strong account of the text, as one would expect, and there are some finely judged moments – seeking Tyrrell in the audience particularly stood out. Overall, though, he's undermined by the wider flaws of the production, and one central error. It's my firm conviction that you have to see two Richards – the man as he reveals himself in his asides, and the man who can seduce (or terrify would be another avenue) such people as Buckingham and many others and persuade them to do what he wants. As a viewer, I think you must be convinced on some level by his protestations of innocence and friendship, at least to begin with – there is certainly a case later that the mask slips. Unfortunately, Fiennes (possibly at Goold's direction) plays it all too much at one level thus rendering it difficult to understand why nobody stands up to Richard much sooner. The occasional moments of real magnetism – there is one telling example at the end of the early Lady Anne scene – make one regret what might have been.
The rest of the cast is also variable. Finbar Lynch (Buckingham) gives the strongest overall performance among the various lords – not least because he has the good sense to know that a quietly delivered line can pack far more punch than a shout. David Annen also makes an effective job of his brief scene as Edward IV but is weaker as Tyrrell, though this is largely a consequence of the fact that Goold portrays him as a slightly effeminate Gestapo type who appears to have wandered in from a different show altogether. James Garnon's Hastings settles as the play proceeds and is very fine in the scene leading up to his demise. Scott Handy (Clarence) has some nice moments but doesn't quite nail the delivery of his longer speeches. Once he appears Tom Canton's Richmond adds a welcome liveliness to proceedings. The women are sadly less distinguished. Vanessa Redgrave is luxury casting as Queen Margaret but she's hampered by being required to carry round a rather decrepit doll (another ineffective device) and also by issues with vocal delivery. At times her capacity to spellbind endures, but elsewhere the pacing doesn't sound quite right, and I suspected that she no longer quite has the vocal resources for the variation in volume that the part could really use. Aislin McGuckin (Queen Elizabeth) and Joanna Vanderham (Lady Anne) fall victim to a familiar Goold vice of shouting too much – on a couple of key occasions they end up with nowhere to go much too early in the scene. Their performances would be far stronger if more subtle.
This show crashed the Almeida system when booking opened, presumably because of the presence of Fiennes and Redgrave. Some stood to applaud at the end (rather more when Fiennes took his solo bow). As far as I was concerned it was undeserved. Not worth queueing for returns.