First Nighter: London Offers Ralph Fiennes as "Richard III," Mike Bartlett's Somewhat Wild "Wild," Michael Crawford as "The Go-Between"

London-- It's been four years since the skeleton discovered in a Leicester parking lot was confirmed to be what's left of Richard III. That would be in addition to accounts of him and William Shakespeare's treatment of the briefly ruling monarch (1483-85) and how he murdered his way to the throne.

So give Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold a hand for working the event into his revival as prologue and epilogue. Workers exhume the bones and, after removing various bones, hold up a severely curved spine. Only then arrives Richard, Duke of Gloucester, played by Ralph Fiennes in black modern dress concealing a back disfigured in accordance with the Leicester finding.

This Richard III is a stunning production with a simple Hildegard Bechtler set design featuring a large bowl-shaped object hung above the players--Vanessa Redgrave, prominent among them, as an unusually understanding Margaret--that looks like, and could be, metal. But somehow Goold's treatment impresses as being done by the numbers, the high numbers, to be sure, but by the numbers, nevertheless. (The production will be screened worldwide on July 21 and subsequent dates. Check local listings.)

There is, of course, the small problem of making the handsome Fiennes convincing as physically ugly from stem to stern, but he's an endlessly resourceful actor and has no trouble illustrating how ugly the relentless Richard is at his core. Fiennes does have difficulty expressing the errant king's eventual attacks of guilt, but that's not his problem. It's Shakespeare's.

That this is a modern-dress take isn't disturbing, although watching the Bard's well-played characters manipulate iPhones, which they do here, is no longer amusing. The conceit has now descended to cliché levels. It seems particularly silly when Fiennes and other cast members suit up in armor for the Bosworth battle. Do they communicate by electronic devices then? No, they don't.
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At first you might think that in Wild, at the Hampstead, Mike (Charles III, Cock, Bull) Bartlett has something very specific to say about Edward Snowden's heroic (traitorous?) whistle-blowing action. You might think as much because Snowden-like Andrew (Jack Farthing) is holed up in a Moscow hotel while being quizzed about a recent international episode. The interrogator is a Woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) in black, who's introduced herself as Miss Prism but later confides that her name is George.

After bidding for Andrew's agreement to speak publicly on behalf of the Russian government but not succeeding, she leaves and is quickly replaced by a tall, slim Man (John Mackay), who also calls himself George. He claims to know nothing about the previous George and goes about pressing Andrew to represent the Russians. When he fails, the first George returns, claiming she has no knowledge of the other George. She eventually receives Andrew's acquiescence.

So far there's nothing in Wild along the lines of insight into the real Edward Snowden, which isn't, of course what playwright Bartlett is after. Commissioned by artistic director Edward Hall for a piece, Bartlett has taken advantage of the Hampstead's multi-faceted technical abilities for a play making a broader statement about someone who's abandoned a recognized life for an unknown existence.

This means that the abundant glib George talk is really in preparation for a coup de theatre that'll illustrate how Andrew has chosen to turn his world upside down--or at least sideways. It's something to see, when it suddenly occurs under James MacDonald's direction, Miriam Buether's ingenious set design, Peter Mumford's lighting design and Christopher Shutt's sound design. Whether the profusely slick banter that precedes it is equally worth the intermissionless 90-minute time is in more doubt.
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When Michael (Phantom of the Opera) Crawford in the dark enters Michael Pavelka's gaudily somber set for The Go-Between, he pulls a string to turn on a single light bulb. When he does, the stage becomes only slightly less dark for a good reason.

The beloved 1953 L. P. Hartley novel--that famously begins "The past in a foreign country; they do things differently there"--is a seriously dark piece, and the creators want to keep it that way. As a result, composer-lyricist Richard Taylor and bookwriter-lyricist David Wood have produced an elegant chamber musical, directed with enormous style by Roger Haines.

Crawford plays disillusioned 63-year-old Colston, who opens a trunk and removes a diary that begins to shed more than sufficient light on the past. It illuminates the foreign country where Leo (Luka Green), Colston's 13-year-old self, visits privileged friend Marcus (Samuel Menhinick, at the performance I saw) at Brandham Hall.

There and before understanding what he's agreed to do, Leo becomes an eager "postman" delivering letters between upper-class Marian (Gemma Sutton) and rugged lower-class farmer Ted Burgess (Stuart Ward)--theirs developing into as doomed a romance as the class difference destines it to be.

The Go-Between, often described as concerning the loss of innocence, is more accurately described as innocence not lost but carelessly stolen by adults who should have known better. Moreover, Hartley wants to show the life-long devastation the theft sets in motion.

Taylor and Wood have woven their music and lyrics more as nearly sung-through underscoring rather than a collection of discrete songs. The only instrument is an on-stage piano played by Nigel Lilley. The result is enthralling. Crawford, in an effective return to musicals, does most of the singing and through it draws the touching portrait of a defeated man. The small cast surrounding him lends great support.