I almost didn't make it to the Almeida on Friday night, which, given that the chance to watch Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave in Richard III
was one of the reasons why I picked this particular week when my APs gave me a week in London for Christmas, would have been a not so fun irony. The London Underground played one of its tricks, with the Northern Line temporarily breaking down. But thanks to a taxi driver who had a hysterical foreigner in the form of yours truly at hand, I did make it in time. It was an excellent production, with one caveat, and reminded me how much The Hollow Crown
version cut. (For example: that terse monologue about Hastings getting framed post-execution which makes it very contemporary indeed.) Contemporary costumes, except for the final battle scenes, for which everyone was in armor and had swords.
The play opened and ended at the car park in Leicester where they found historical Richard III's remains, which I took as an attempt to tie in the revived interest, because otherwise of course the production was firmly Shakespeare, not history, and not just the usual habit of casting middle aged actors as the York brothers but also the women in very different ages to their historical counterparts helps seeing the play as its own 'verse. Fiennes' Richard does the usual "clever mastermind loses it as soon as he actually has
power trajectory - come to think of it, I guess the only ursurper whom Shakeskpeare allows to remain subtle instead of ham fisted is Claudius in Hamlet
-, with an undercurrent of "both power hunger and misanthropy are the result of being loathed from birth", and he does it well. I've seen a complaint that he doesn't seduce the audience by being charming, complete with trajectory that Fiennes isn't able to. Having recently watched his Monsieur Gustave, I beg to differ: he can be charming, if the role calls for it. His version of Shakespeare's Richard doesn't; he's very compelling, though, more like a clever cobra taking out lots of hapless bunnies before realising he's stuck with lots of dead bodies and no idea what do actually do with them.
I hadn't been sure whether Vanessa Redgrave was playing Queen Margaret or the Duchess of York when londonkds
asked me about it; turns out she was Margaret, far less mad than clear-sighted here, though Margaret carrying a baby doll around (which she in her second scene bequeathed to Elizabeth Woodville) was presumably a signal that she's not all there after all. Seriously, though, what I loved about the performance was that this Margaret was both tragic and
and vengeful without being over the top about it. There was a stillness in Redgrave when she watched her enemies fall, a slight smile, that reminded even an audience that didn't listen to the textual reminder of her killing of Rutland and York that Margaret is no nice woman wronged, but an aged monster rendered powerless herself. The way she and Richard keep an eye on each other through Margaret's first scene also comes across as two predators knowing each other by instinct, or maybe it's also the star quality both actors have.
Redgrave aside, this was another production making it very clear that Tudor's appearance at the end not withstanding, Richard's true opponents in this play are the women. Hastings - who kept checking his twitter feed - was a bombastic, with non-malignant fool, Clarence naively blind, and Buckingham the not-so-faithful Lieutenant type considering himself somehow excempt from Richard's malignity out of sheer ego. Meanwhile, Joanna Vanderham was a very young (no idea how old the actress is, but she looked at least twenty, if not thirty years younger than Fiennes as Richard) but firm Lady Anne who only just starts to come around at the end of the wooing scene but mostly acts as she does because she doesn't want to become a killer, Susan Engel is the other matriarch, Cecily Nevill, Duchess of York (age wise looks a match with Redgrave, so that bit of internal verse-sense is kept) and her palpable loathing of her son remains, despite all that Richard does, as disturbing as ever. (The production closes with her reappearing on stage, standing at his grave in Leicester and enigmatically staring in it.) Aislin McGuckin was a great Elizabeth Woodville, but alas, her scenes include my one caveat/complaint about this production, though it's no fault of hers or Fiennes' but of the director's decision.
The Richard & Elizabeth scene pre battle of Bosworth goes the traditional way of him by now incapable of swaying his target and her not buying a word of - and then he proceeds to rape her. Now, the way the rape is played makes it clear it's not about hidden sexual attraction but about power and humiliation, and yet another example of Richard resorting to tyrannical power exertion because he can't get what he wants by his wits anymore. It's also in tandem with this Richard projecting his mother issues by misogyny. But still: the rest of the second half of the play makes that point already. And I'm just so tired of rape (the one thing not even Holinshed, More and Shakespeare thought to accuse Richard of, btw) being the default act to signal that a villain is really truly bad. So could have done without that.
Still on a Shakespeare note: the British Library currently has a "Shakespere in Ten Acts" exhibition which I visited with londonkds
. Truly full of treasures, starting not just with the expected First Folio but copies of the Robert Greene book containing the "Johannes Factotum" crack about Shakespeare, and the 1602 collection of anecdotes - in hand writing, not in print, which was fascinating to me, since I've rarely seen handwritten bound books in the post Gutenberg era - that contains the "William the Conqueror arrived before Richard III" story about Shakespeare, Burbage and the female fan. There is a rough chronology of the exhibition, but also various of the plays as a central focus in different eras. In the mid 19th century, we get Othello
and Ira Aldridge's entire career getting a wall to himself, which I can't help but suspect and hope was influenced by interest in Ira Aldridge being revived through the Adrian Lester starring play I watched the last time I was here. Seeing the posters both British and European was fascinating - and telling, what with the American born Ira billed as "a native of Senegal" in the early English ones. And speaking of black actors playing Othello, I had of course known that Paul Robeson had done so, but not that Laurence Olivier refused to join a Robeson supporting campaign in order to get him to play the role in Britain because, as Olivier openly declared, he wanted to have a go at Othello himself.
There are costumes and stage props of more recent productions, as the 1960s Peter Brook directed Midsummer Night's Dream
, and interviews with surviving actors; I was amused to find a recording of the puppet play version of the early German version of Hamlet
(hails from ye late 17th and early 19th century days when the Bard was more popular in our part of the world than at home, before Garrick helped him to a comeback). All in all, truly a satisfying anniversary exhibition to visit.