As soon as I stepped into the Almeida auditorium and saw the stage I got the reference. There was a grave-sized earthy hole around which there were spotlights and actors dressed in white, forensic-style jump-suits who were excavating bones. The last to be lifted is a twisted spine which is a macabre sight and sets the tone.
The grave excavation is a nice merging of history and fiction and is used to book end Rupert Goold's production. It was also a promising start to what is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.
When Ralph Fiennes' Duke of Gloucester appears for the 'winter of discontent' speech it is a slow, deliberate delivery. He makes sure he has everyone's attention, holding people's gaze. (I've embedded a video of another speech at the bottom of the post to give you a taste.)
His Richard is a snake, slithering slowly, fixing you in his eyes so that you daren't look away but a snake which has a sudden deadly bite. I've seen productions where he's played as a loveable villain - dangerous but charming. There is no such charm here. He is pure evil, prone to occasional violent outbursts, particularly towards women when his violence turns sexual. He is a coward in that respect. He's not a hands-on murderer as he is sometimes portrayed, he leaves that to others, instead he picks his fights with those he can easily overpower.
I expected to Fiennes to play a chilling Richard and I was right, the problem I have is that the pace of the production was sometimes watch-checkingly slow, particularly in the first half. At the interval @trpw described it as 'glacial'. Ivo Van Hove's King's of War could be a fairly static, he stripped out the fighting and concentrated on the politics, but somehow it was still gripping. Here Goold's production isn't quite pulling it off or perhaps not yet, it is still in preview so maybe the pace will pick up.
It was left to the female characters - Vanessa Redgrave's Queen Margaret aside - to give the more emotionally charged performances and I particularly enjoyed Aislin McGuckin's Queen Elizabeth. Her fear and anxiety is not born out frustration but a genuine feeling of dread and powerlessness as to what Richard will do to her sons. When Richard tells her he wants to marry her daughter she gags at the thought.
As to Vanessa Redgrave, she has one of those voices you just can't help but listen to. She is inexplicably dressed in a boiler suit and carries a scruffy, battered doll but her considered delivery makes you wonder why nobody heeds her warnings. She certainly makes people sit up and listen.
Richard's demised is carefully choreographed to tie in with the opening scene and his killers show him exactly the respect he deserves but in the end I felt a little bit let down by this production. I've warmed to it more on reflection but I don't think it deserved the standing ovation it got - that's just my opinion and perhaps it will by press night.
It's definitely not my favourite Richard III and when I left the theatre I was going to give it three stars but having written this I think it is just nudging four.
Richard III is playing at the Almeida Theatre until August 6 and there is a live broadcast on July 21. It is three hours and 20 minutes long at present and days seats are available from June 17 either at the box office or via a lottery through TodayTix.
Other Richard III's I've seen:
King's of War, Barbican Theatre (Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III combined)
Propeller's production at Hampstead (still my favourite)