Onstage, gravediggers at an excavation site discover a crooked spinal cord. That could only belong to one figure, Richard III. Flashing back to Shakespeare's play, his history, in the person of Ralph Fiennes unfolds in the Almeida Theater's stunning production under Rupert Goold's direction, the image of the misshapen bone only begins to tell you what's in this man's heart. Having just murdered Lady Anne's father and husband, he woos her, Shakespeare's language suggesting everything you can possibly do with a cane.
Ralph Fiennes in a smart black suit is only mildly deformed compared to Richards of the past: Olivier's, Ian McKellan's, Al Pacino's, Kevin Spacey's. Richard III is second to Hamlet in Shakespeare's oeuvre, for demanding roles. The character himself is a gift, unremittingly narcissistic, conscience-free, who after a bad dream wakes up to one, in time to die. For political gain, he will murder anyone; the line up of his corpses -including his nephews, children played to Tweedledum and Tweedledee perfection - Their skulls form a decorative backdrop on a cave-like wall. Overseeing these proceedings is the formidable Queen Margaret (a gentle Vanessa Redgrave).
The timing could not have been more resonant, the day of the vote for secession from the European Union. Londoners reeled from lack of sleep, and nightmares of what would come. Last week before the vote, Jo Cox, a member of Parliament, had been slain by a madman, two roses, one red, one white lain on her seat as a symbol of unity. In Richard III, when Richard's successor, the Earl of Richmond speaks of these roses joining houses, there was not a dry eye in the theater. In the larger picture, this play is a potent spectacle of just how bad bad leadership can be.
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