July 22, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Richard III (Almeida Live) @ Nottingham Broadway

I’d been warned to expect it, but even so, the scene of Ralph Fiennes’s Richard III raping Aislin McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth towards the end of Rupert Goold’s new production came out of nowhere. Falling late in a mostly intelligent, finely characterised take on the play, Fiennes and McGuckin pulled out all the stops for their final trading of wit and argument. McGuckin tore at the soil around the grave whose maw yawned open for much of the play, weeping at the loss of her children; Richard sidled around the edges of the stage, following up non sequiturs that pulled the Queen up silent with fast, overreaching arguments that she then responded to with rage, tears and a finely balanced wit, raising herself up above his level on a bench as she appealed to the heavens. It showed both characters at their most desperate, he exploring every intellectual argument while she responded with full emotional range. And then, out of nowhere, he pushed her to the ground and raped her, leaving her to stagger offstage.

Rape as ‘character development’ has rightly been highlighted as an endemic problem across theatre, film and television in recent years (cf Game of Thrones); this was rape as character obliteration, not a world apart from the similarly crass murder-rape of Wagner in Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus. Not only did it undermine the nuances of Richard’s argument and persuasiveness by prioritising dick over delivery; it missed the point that his argument doesn’t work. Elizabeth may yield the stage, but she certainly doesn’t accede to his demands. It reduced Elizabeth to a victim; our final sight of her was as a subdued, physically beaten woman, sidling off the side of the stage and out of Richard’s story. It was as if the production itself couldn’t stand Elizabeth being a match for Richard with her grandstanding, eloquent ripostes and articulate self-defence, and could only think of one way to shut her up and clear the play’s last remaining woman out of the way.

I’m angry, obviously; not only because of a deeply misguided performance choice that seems to me to be part of a broader escalation of violent strategies to silence female characters, but also by this choice’s anomalous presence in an otherwise fascinating production. Crisply spoken and conceptually invigorating, Goold’s production thrived on subtleties and grace notes, at least until Richard bludgeoned them into the soil.

The production opened with a long recreation of the Leicester car park, as archaeologists removed skull and spine from a pit in the stage floor while tourists snapped pictures. Initially the device seemed disconnected from the production that followed, with a blackout separating the modern scene from Richard’s opening soliloquy; but as the production went on, the thematic resonance became clear. As Richard’s victims succumbed, skulls began appearing on stage, set into the upstage wall, growing in number throughout the play until eight hovered, haunting Richard from behind. These skulls illuminated in turn when the ghosts appeared to Richard and Richmond, but they also served as a reminder that Richard’s isn’t the only story buried under our feet. The dead don’t stay buried long, and it was Richard’s grave that was uncovered again for Rivers and Buckingham to fall into upon their executions; as different as they all may be, they shared the same eventual destination.

Fiennes’s Richard accorded to the usual physical stereotypes – a large hunchback, a hobbled foot, and an impressively withered arm that the camera caught to great effect when he revealed it to James Garnon’s stunned Hastings. His skill was his eloquence, and the constant use of tightly focused close-ups aimed to draw the viewer into his beautifully framed taunts (his pronunciation of ‘lute’ in the opening soliloquy alone conveyed a combination of depravity, pleasure and smugness). There was clearly an intention to find a sexual magnetism in Richard as well, which worked less well. Richard’s wooing of Joanna Vanderham’s Anne was most effective in Fiennes’s quick reactions, inviting her to stab him and rushing straight into the reason preventing her, or pulling his ring off his finger with his teeth and easing himself into Anne’s personal space; it was less effective when he grabbed her by the crotch at the end of the wooing, pulling her close to him while she opened her mouth in a mixed reaction of hate and compulsion. While she walked away from this, the sudden sexual proximity of the two came out of nowhere; if Richard’s attitude towards women in this play was meant to be more broadly driven by sexual urges, that didn’t come over on screen.

In general, the production seemed unsure what to do with the female characters. Anne was hurried offstage by Catesby during the coronation, presumably to her death, swept aside in an admittedly effective, over-the-shoulder dismissal by Richard. The Duchess of York (Susan Engel, who played Queen Elizabeth 52 years ago in The Wars of the Roses, reviewed on the blog yesterday) was left standing around for most of her appearances until her final series of curses, where Engel came into her own with a furious, dignified tirade against her son. But Vanessa Redgrave’s Margaret appeared to be from a different production entirely. Appearing in a boiler suit and carrying a rather terrifying doll, Redgrave delivered her lines in a dreamlike, sometimes robotic tone. She was presented as partly senile, giving wine to the doll and clinging onto Buckingham’s hands with a childlike happiness, but the slowness and relative calmness drained all energy and much of the anger from these scenes without offering much to replace it.

It felt to me that a lot more attention had been paid to the male characters. Garnon, in particular, was revelatory as Hastings. From his early release from prison, Hastings was glued to his smartphone, often missing the veiled threats of others while he dealt with his emails. He wrung a good deal of comedy from the device, complaining about Stanley keeping him up at 3am with texts about his dreams. The production perfectly nailed the about-turn of the ‘strawberries’ scene, during which Hastings presided over the table. Garnon responded to Richard’s queries about curses with a great deal of hesitation and then carefully chosen words that he was certain would prevent him from any harm; Richard’s roar of rage, directly into Hastings’ face, left him flattened and silent; he didn’t move or speak until everyone else but Catesby had left, and only then pulled himself together and addressed himself to his fate. There was a logical confusion here, however – any reference to Mistress Shore was cut (Hastings wore a wedding ring, in fact), and Richard’s accusations of witchcraft related to Elizabeth; within the logic of this production, there was no rationale given for why Hastings, given his enmity to the Woodvilles, was aligned with her at this point.

A stellar cast of reliable supporting players rounded out the ensemble. Mark Hadfield, always good value, was a comically bumbling Lord Mayor and a slightly terrifying, cold-voiced Ratcliffe. David Annen made little impression in his one scene as King Edward, other than doing the important job of conveying horror at Clarence’s murder, but was oily and eerily calm as Tyrrel. Scott Handy, looking much younger than his little brother, was dignified as Clarence when describing his dream, but succumbed to terror as he pleaded for his life and relied on the love of his brother. And Finbar Lynch as Buckingham acted and sounded like Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger as he drawled his support for Richard and stood aloof from the squabbling nobles. The public scene of exhorting Richard to accept the crown had some lovely moments here, especially a held glare of disapproval from Richard as Buckingham commented on his effeminacy.

It was easier, in some ways, to view this production as a selection of individual performances, given the tightness of the camera angles. This was the first production to be broadcast live from the Almeida, and there was some shakiness in the editing as camera operators were caught off guard. The close-ups came at the expenses of the broader view of the stage, with many important reaction shots missing and key visual devices (notably the appearance of the skulls) very difficult to see. The attempt to create some more kinetic camera work during the final battle, led by Tom Canton’s hilariously heroic Richmond, was welcome, but somewhat curtailed by the stop-start nature of the sequences. Here, the modern dress was overlaid with medieval armour and weapons, and Richard was forced crawling into his own grave, into which Richmond and his men stabbed their swords. The return to the opening device was marked by the Duchess of York kneeling next to the grave in tears while a tabard-wearing archaeologist came in and set up a floodlight pointing directly onto it, setting up a fantastic tableau that evoked chiaroscuro paintings.

There was much, then, to love in this production. I suspect that the missteps, most importantly the rape, emerge from unnecessary anxiety about whether an audience will follow the dynamics of a scene. But it’s important that directors stop throwing in sexual assault as an easy solution to coding villainy. There is a place for the intelligent, committed exploration of issues of sexual violence on the contemporary stage; what audiences do not need is rape deployed as a dramatic shorthand to explain to them that men like Faustus and Richard III are bad. Sexual assault is too serious to be used in this trivialising way.

Posted in Theatre review