Richard III is the ideal play for these post-facts times, where rhetoric is no longer anchored to reality and fear is the prevailing political currency. We approach a referendum whose result will be decided by whichever apocalyptic vision of the future the public chooses to believe.
Across the pond a demagogue threatens to hijack the US political system, barely even attempting to clothe his naked villainy. At home and abroad acts of unspeakable violence play out with crushing regularity in the name of fear and hatred. Not in recent memory have we been so close to the winter of our discontent.
This contemporary strife is hinted at in director Rupert Goold’s breathtaking production, which is framed by archaeologists digging at the Leicester car park where the bones of Richard III were recently discovered. From this chasm, the ghost of Shakespeare’s most vile creation seems to bleed into the 21st century.
As modernity fades, the lights come up on Ralph Fiennes’ Richard, twisted and bowed, the nodules of his spine bulging grotesquely against a tailored suit. There are endless interpretations of Richard: Kevin Spacey brought a queasy sexuality to the role; Martin Freeman played a man borne along on a bloody tide, his actions seeming to surprise even himself. Fiennes, in one of the theatrical performances of the year, is pure, dripping malevolence, the personification of spite and bitterness and self-loathing.
This is never more evident than in his utter disdain for women; there’s no element of seduction in his relationship with Lady Anne, only conquest and sarcasm, and when he’s trying to convince his step-sister to offer him her daughter’s hand in marriage, he rapes her, before slapping her across the face with his parting “kiss”. Queen Margaret (a brilliant Vanessa Redgrave), meanwhile, is a broken old woman in a soiled jumpsuit who carries a child’s doll in place of her slain son – when Richard sees it, he caves in its plastic skull.
It takes place on a sparse, gothic set containing only shades of black, brown and burgundy, and the Almeida’s small stage rarely emerges from a heavy gloom. Skulls occasionally flicker into view on the back wall, keeping a tally of Richard’s victims.
Of course, this play’s brilliance stems as much from its dark humour as it does it’s evil protagonist, and while Fiennes has little time for subtlety, his petulant mimicry and childish play-acting of innocence are a masterclass in comic timing. The Duke of Hastings is reimagined as a smarmy, nice-but-dim bureaucrat, at one point reading aloud as he types a monologue into his smartphone. His death at the hands of Richard’s men is a hilariously dark farce, with the executioners – a pair of dour, sarcastic cockneys who slip on red rubber gloves before concluding their dirty business – providing the evening’s biggest laughs.
I find Goold, who is also artistic director of the Almeida, a little hit and miss; for every American Psycho or Enron, there’s a Made in Dagenham or True Story. But here his singular, misanthropic vision is nothing short of glorious.