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'Conscience is but a word that cowards use...' Richard III at The Almeida Theatre

Today's post is a longer one: my goal in this blog is to not only offer a look into what I am doing in London, but also create longer, full appreciations of specific works to share with my students and community. The subject of today's post, Shakespeare's 'Richard III' at the Almeida Theatre, has been captured as an HD broadcast film: for a cinema near you, check for updated listings.

RICHARD III, by William Shakespeare Almeida Theatre July 20, 2016

The Almeida Theatre’s ‘Richard III’ starts at a grave, the newly discovered burial site of Richard III, under a parking lot in Leicester. The bones are carefully exhumed by lab technicians in white jumpsuits, the last being the unmistakable twisted spine of Shakespeare’s protagonist. Throughout the production, the audience never leaves this burial site: a thick glass floor rolls over the dirt site. It remains in plain view, and glass floor rolls back to reveal the pit as it is used again – and again, and again – throughout the production, swallowing up the corpses Richard scatters on his bloody rise to the throne.

Shakespeare didn’t wish for these corpses to be forgotten. As Richard slips into the anxious paranoia Margaret has cursed upon him at the beginning of his climb, each of these murdered characters returns as ghosts to haunt Richard’s last night before Bosworth Field. In the Almeida’s stunning production, we are unable to forget the dead as well, each memorialized by a skull added to the bare brick wall which looms over the throne, even as their graves are ever present, center stage.

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ ends his Wars of the Roses cycle, and the deaths in this play stand in for the dozens of deaths throughout that cycle. With Richard’s demise, and Richmond’s quick and glorious victory at the end of the play, Shakespeare restores the order for a broken and war-beaten England, delivering her into the protective hands of the Tudors. If Shakespeare’s contemporary audience was to accept the protection of the current ruling house, what better narrative to do so than by the grisly reminder of the despotism which preceded it? The play is centered on the violent, expedient, and sometimes mercurial slaughter of Richard’s obstacles – the carnage should not be forgotten.

The driving tension of the play is just how well Richard succeeds in distracting his audience (and his court) from the violence he creates. Ralph Fiennes is wonderfully touching and funny. Richard is charming. Richard is funny. Richard wants too much, perhaps – but he gets it, like a favorite child who cannot be punished after he does wrong, who can always get forgiveness with a grin and cow eyes. There seems no end to his mutability in any situation:

‘I can add colors to the chameleon’

Ralph Fiennes uses all of these tools, brilliantly, drawing his audience into confidence. This is, of course, the skill of the narcissist, who loves himself so much, he is driven to draw everyone else to him as well. The love of all those around him becomes his greatest challenge, and the sweetest victory.

And so, we want him to succeed. There’s just the problem of all those corpses.

Richard flourishes because he is a genius at controlling the narrative, at getting ahead of the story. He argues Anne out of her anger and into his bed; he convinces a population to call for him as king, while feigning his own distaste for the burden of governance. Throughout his rise he may careen and overreach, but his own charm and narrative leave own assured: ‘well it may not be quite right, but what’s the worst that can happen?’

Towards the end of The Almeida’s first act, we see. Rivers is shot execution style by all too recognizable semi-automatics, his body crashing into the open grave with sudden sphincter-shattering violence which makes us take note. ‘The worst that can happen’ is quite ugly indeed, when we stay blind to the ambition, self absorption, ambition, and ruthlessness of our leaders.

None can imagine the violence of which Richard is capable, save for the Mock Queen, Margaret ( a luminous Vanessa Redgrave). Her power on stage is palpable: quiet and deeply fed, burning still and ashy white-hot like the last embers in a fire. Margaret has fanned these ashes of her anger for years, and now haunts the court like a wraith, her wispy white hair in a ponytail, nursing a tiny, broken plastic baby doll. When the young kings are smothered in the tower, and their mother Elizabeth howls in grief, Margaret teaches her this cool patience of revenge, soothing her hair into a ponytail, and placing the doll in her arms. Margaret’s cool patience is not born of loss, but of endurance.

As Elizabeth (a very powerful Aislín McGuckin) confronts Richard, the Almeida production comes into high clarity with a violent encounter between the two. When this Richard takes his last triumph, the hand of Elizabeth’s daughter to cement his place on the throne, he seals the deal with a rape. The narcissist’s soul has the imprimatur to do whatever it wishes, without compunction, simple because he can do it. It is the soul of a rapist:

‘Conscience is but a word that cowards use,

Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe’

Contemporary, violent, prescient, The Almeida’s ‘Richard III’ does what drama does best: it makes us aware of our own humanity, our own society – and makes us fear for its loss.

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