Ralph Fiennes’ titular bunch-backed toad is a man thoroughly damaged by years of abuse in Rupert Goold’s enthralling modern dress production. The production will be broadcast to cinemas around the world starting July 21.
Director Rupert Goold’s Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes as the titular bunch-backed toad, is an enthralling modern dress production. Goold presents Richard as a mythological figure. In the induction that bookends the play, yellow vested diggers exhume Richard’s bones from his Leicester grave and meticulously examine his twisted spine. Just as the diggers do, Goold wants us to view the archaeological evidence with wonder. Fiennes then emerges from the mist upstage onto an empty stage. By the play’s end, he returns to his grave.
In its slightly unconventional take on this murderous villain, Fiennes’ Richard is a man thoroughly damaged from years of having vitriol spewed at him. This more psychological and emotional take on Richard is off-the-beaten path enough that this isn’t likely to be a Richard against which we compare all other Richards. When Margaret Beaufort (Vanessa Redgrave) launches into a tirade of abuse about his physical deformity, every word stabs. Fiennes flinches with pain, but he recovers his composure quickly. When he responds to her with “Margaret,” it’s an angry challenge rather than a calm disarmament. He’s easily hurt but not easily intimidated.
Richard has a calculated charm, a coping mechanism developed over years. His brother Clarence (Scott Handy) never even suspects that his imminent death is at Richard’s bequest. When Richard’s princeling nephews attempt to climb on his back, they just genuinely want to play, unaware that it will injure him. Though Fiennes is bent forward, Richard’s hump is largely hidden by his clothes. But as the play progresses, it becomes increasingly visible: in the final scenes, his hump is built into his armour. Like Ian McKellen’s Richard, Fiennes has only one functional arm; he keeps the other hidden away in his pocket.
Fiennes’s Richard develops an intimate relationship with the audience. In a world where he’s forced to constantly perform, we are the only people he is mostly honest with. Fiennes is a master at feeling out an audience — pausing for emphasis or adding an extra flourish for a laugh. His Richard may be despicable, but he’s a sardonic wit. He dares us to laugh at his victims whom he circles around on stage like prey. But flattery, charm, and lulling his enemy into a sense of security are skills Fiennes’ Richard developed for survival.
Unlike McKellen’s Richard, who seeks power for power’s sake, or Olivier’s, who constantly insists on proving his superiority, Fiennes’ Richard just wants to drop the charade. As soon as his Richard ascends the throne, he unleashes a mad fury. He discards Buckingham and exerts disgusting dominance over all the women. He even tells his wife Anne that he’s going to dispose of her directly, because he thinks the crown frees him from the need for subterfuge and niceties. But he underestimates how much he still depends on others for his throne.
Making use of a minimalist set and lighting, Goold vividly creates the dark world of Richard’s court. In this land of black business suits, a white outfit means there’s a target on your head. Every splash of colour becomes meaningful: the red rubber gloves that Richard’s henchmen don in preparation for a kill or the large golden crown that overhangs over the stage like an impossible goal that augurs danger.
Though Richard III is essentially a star vehicle for Fiennes, Goold makes every secondary character differentiable and crucial. He not only retains Margaret Beaufort (Vanessa Redgrave), usually the first character that directors excise, but makes her vital. Redgrave’s frail, ghostly Beaufort stalks the stage. She’s a cautionary figure who represents the ephemeral and cyclical nature of power. Soon enough, the dethroned Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin) and Lady Anne follow in Margaret’s wake. In this hostile world, the women form a sisterhood, holding hands and supporting one another as the conscience of the state.
Yet the women in this production are the strongest and smartest in this world, perhaps because Richard’s transparent misogyny has forced them to mature. Lady Anne (a truculent, wise-beyond-her-years Joanna Vanderham) bites back at Richard when he tries to woo her, every bit his match in wit and toughness. When he succeeds in persuading this grieving widow to marry him, it’s less an act of domination than a meeting of equals — or so he temporarily leads Anne to believe. Queen Elizabeth is not so easily intimidated by Richard, so he exerts his dominance with sexual aggression.
Goold’s blocking is particularly elegant, allowing every movement on stage to be about the battle for power. Goold pairs Richard’s verbal authority with physical dominance by positioning him downstage left with a direct line to the audience. When managing his henchman Buckingham (a chilling Finbar Lynch), Richard lets him reside downstage right, in what seems to be the position of an equal — but he never gets our ear. As Richard begins his downfall, Goold increasingly confines him to downstage right, while his rival Richmond (Tom Canton) gains ground downstage left and delivers his speeches straight to us.
Although Fiennes’ often despicable Richard is one of the darkest versions of the character I’ve seen, he’s still utterly magnetic. In Richard’s ascent to the throne, it’s a mischievous flicker in Fiennes’ eye that signals he is up to no good. It’s also Fiennes’ eyes, often downward cast, that reveal how easily Richard can be hurt. Once he gets comfortable enough, he doesn’t just bully his enemies with his words but by the force with which they’re delivered: spitting them out with a fury that makes even Fiennes’ terrifying, killing-machine Coriolanus, seem almost timid. Fiennes’ Richard has something to prove where Coriolanus didn’t, and he’s louder and more brutal because of it.
Listen to the 21st Folio episodes about Richard III on film with McKellen and Olivier