Richard III, Almeida, dir. Rupert Goold, Almeida Live. Royal Spa Centre cinema, Leamington. 21 July 2016.
By Sarah Olive
5 ways in which this Richard III is totally on trend that don’t involve comparing the protagonist and Michael Gove (that’s soooo passé).
Archaeology is hot right now (literally, for those doing fieldwork in this week’s roasting weather). Cerys Matthews devoted a good hour to on-going Fenland excavations on her BBC Radio 6 music show last Sunday. This production had audiences sit through a pre-show of archaeologists swaddled in forensic white plastic suits digging up Richard III’s remains from a mock-up of the Leicester car park to a soundtrack of real news reports from the skeleton’s discovery. The gravesite remained visible throughout the show, covered with glass panes, looking for all the world like an attraction at an English Heritage site. This made tangible Goold’s sense of England’s rich and bloody history lying just under the surface of the nation’s floors and tarmac, communicated in a pre-show interview with the director. The glass panes retracted intermittently throughout to enable the pit to accommodate various victims of Richard’s regime and their mourners. The implication of the killer and his victims sharing this space for the production’s meaning isn’t immediately clear to me – but it did provide a neat way of getting bodies off stage (none of Michael Boyd’s Royal Shakespeare Company history cycle walking-mortally-wounded here).
Other, rather glamourising, references to the discipline included that a skull was artfully placed on the back wall of the set for each death, looking more Damian Hirst interior design than the ossuaries of Cambodia’s killing fields. The more mundane potsherds that dominate Channel 4’s recently-deceased, long-running popular archaeology programme Time Team were nowhere to be seen. The sounds of spades striking the earth were blurred with those of steel swords clashing in battle transporting us between the twenty-first century find and the fifteenth century conflict royal conflict aurally, eschewing the reconstruction drawings used in documentaries – although visual prompts for drawing connections across the centuries included props such as a medieval throne and coronet as well as chainmail and gauntlets for the final scene’s soldiers.
Every production of Richard III is a metaphorical excavation of history, with the cast and crew unearthing their own and the audience’s memories of past productions as well as actors embodying the historical figures. The production’s focus on literal archaeology highlighted this: we saw both the skeletons of Richard and Henry VI (rather than the more usual fleshy corpse) as well as those bodily fluids that even the best of Leicester’s forensic archaeologists would struggle to trace six hundred years later. Lady Anne’s spit and vaginal secretions were deposited on Richard’s face and hands. Richard smeared his mouth with Hasting’s blood and skin cells from Stanley’s cheek – Ralph Fiennes swiped his hand through a pool of the former, before licking it off his fingers, and perpetrated a bite of Suarez-proportions on the latter); Richard’s sperm.
Catesby (Daniel Cerqueria) and Ratcliffe (Mark Hadfield) donned red, rubber, roofing gloves to execute their murders, which may have dampened the enthusiasm of future research-bid brewing archaeologists-cum-audience members. More than likely, this clobber also confounded those who’ve seen Cunk on Shakespeare: if a reader can’t don white cotton gloves to handle Shakespearean archive material because they make your fingers clumsy and prone to tearing Folio pages, it seems a bad idea to wear them for butchery, risking fumbling and bungling the job.
The. Place. To. Be. Seen in 2016 whether you’re a slaughtered King (see above), Premier League football fan or theatre director searching out a concept.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin published an article about filler words (titled ‘Um… Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality’). One of their findings was that discourse markers were more common among ‘conscientious’ people. Richard certainly sets about his fiendish work thoroughly and cunningly, so perhaps Fiennes’ incarnation of the king – which made use of a liberal peppering of grunts, groans, gasps, cackles and interpolations not found in the text – was flagging up his dedication to audiences; y’know, rebalancing our recoiling at his evil with admiration for his industriousness, like. At least, that is, until the eve of the battle. At this point, the play’s clarity on Richard’s confusion (dispatching his attendants with half-explained requests) was accentuated in this production by the timing of stage business e.g. a glass being laid down, only for Richard to belatedly command it be set down, the repetition of phrases and lines including, ultimately, ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ repeated three or for times, which would have rendered this Richard silent through hoarseness, had he not been silenced by death. There were also examples of extra-textual, if verbal, bonus lines – Richard, for example, uttered a blasphemous Hail Mary.
Everybody seems to think the big political resonance for this production is Gove’s shafting of Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership campaign. Fiennes is quoted in the Guardian saying as much in publicity for the show. I disagree. It’s highly doubtful that Gove would have thrown off the trappings of UK premier anywhere near as quickly as Fiennes’ insecurity-ridden Richard pulled off his vestments at his coronation. Gove would surely have lingered over being papped outside Number 10 with whatever seals, keys or briefcases accompany the instalment of a new PM. Why not foreground the parallel between Queen Elizabeth (Aislin McGuckin) and the Conservative, wanna-be has-been Andrea Leadsome instead? Both women recurrently harp on about being more invested in the future of the realm than their rivals because of their children. Admittedly, this angle does a retrograde disservice to childfree or childless people by throwing together Richard III and Theresa May as their competitors. And the world hardly needs another popular representation that equates non-parents with homicidal megalomania. I think I’ve answered my own question.
Queen Margaret (the gorgeous, indomitable Vanessa Redgrave) is not much more palatable a character to non-parents than Elizabeth, frequently constructing her wisdom and prophetic power as rooted in her experience of child-rearing and grief for the death of her only son, Edward, Prince of Wales. Redgrave’s creepily understated iteration of Margaret was haunting, nonetheless, as she toted a ‘Reborn’ on stage – only for Richard to stove in its head. Reborns are life-like, sometimes custom-made, sometimes memorial, baby dolls, whose owners usually demonstrate a strong desire to nurture, but do not have, or do not choose, a human to receive their care. The doll made Margaret’s unassuageable grief, her inability (or lack of desire) to move beyond mourning much more poignant than the sack of bones or stones that other productions have given her, and which connote a more ancient, distant bereavement. A breath-taking moment in the production came when Margaret passed on the doll to the freshly-bereaved Elizabeth, reeling from the killing of the Princes in the Tower, and began to groom her in her own image, taking a hair tie from her own head, to pull back Elizabeth’s wild-with-grief locks. Like Mrs Danvers with the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, the act at first resembled gentle comforting, but on close examination manifested a cruel, goading quality designed to steel the recipient to the manipulator’s will.
Another moment that winded the audience afresh, soon after, was Richard’s rape of Elizabeth at her sons’ graveside. Pete Kirwan has argued that this represents the director needlessly succumbing to an all-too-well established use of rape as shorthand for a character’s villainy. I don’t question the need to strongly criticise and encourage directors to ditch gratuitous rape scenes in drama, I just didn’t feel this was one of them. For me, it built on the wooing scene with Anne, where he shoved his hand into her crotch before sniffing his fingers. It bore out Richard’s sexual perversion which is manifest in the language of the scene itself. How sick is it to figure, as Richard does to Elizabeth, copulating with her daughter as an act of burying that daughter’s brothers only to phoenix-like resurrect the house of York through making her pregnant with their likenesses? (in your daughter’s womb I bury them,/ Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed/ Selves of themselves, to your recomforture’ IV.iv.423-425). Richard raping Elizabeth was somewhat against the spirit of the play, if not the language of the scene, in that elsewhere he recruits and pays others to execute his crimes (although he comes close to jabbing the princes with his blade, passing it off moments later as play-fighting). However, not enabling the steely, rhetorically powerful Elizabeth to exit the play physically unscathed by Richard is in keeping with the play’s treatment of women such as Anne: feisty and eloquent on stage in her first scene, passive as her husband orders lies to be broadcast stating that she’s perilously ill, and, after a brief appearance to articulate her solidarity with the other women in the family, dead. It added further weight to Elizabeth’s decision to risk her own and her surviving children’s lives to collaborate with Richmond on deposing him.
It is a legitimate purpose of theatre to unsettle audiences. Richard raping Elizabeth certainly, viscerally, unsettled the audience watching the live cinema relay – people flinched and shifted in their chairs. Until this moment, the audience had been laughing along with Richard, even along with his misogynist ‘jokes’, indulgently admiring his evil cunning as though he were a naughty, precocious child rather than a despot. The rape scene was brutally effective in detaching the audience’s sympathy from Richard, though there might be other ways of achieving it. After it, there was no way we could mourn the character’s loss of command or life. Rather than staging a rape in Richard III being the problem, I would identify the leading newspaper critics’ coverage of it as problematic, even symptomatic of the continued trivialisation of rape in our society and media. Susannah Clapp in the Guardian doesn’t mention the rape but instead reels off Richard’s sexual encounters as though they were consensual: ‘He seduces like a basilisk. His gimlet determination is undisguised…It transfixes a line of grief-laden women, queens whose lives he has ruined. They go, bewildered, to his bed’. Dominic Cavendish’s language perhaps intends to paint Richard’s actions as cavalier but the critic’s words are at risk of being confused with those of a rape apologist, framing it as a past-time or sport: ‘he seals the marital demands placed on…Queen Elizabeth…with a spot of quick-thrust rape’. I don’t agree with Kirwan’s interpretation of the rape scene, and I wouldn’t remove it, but his review was importantly the first I read to seriously attend to it.
Brexit. UK leadership campaigns, plural. Atrocities internationally. Richard III’s four noblewomen’s almost unbroken pessimism was more chord-striking, less irritating than usual this summer. The Duchess of York (Susan Engel) seemed not so much angry with but, like some interviewees post-EU referendum, utterly befuddled and bewildered by what had transpired in the realm. Hasting and Catesby’s exchange – ‘What news, what news, in this our tottering state?’ ‘A reeling world indeed’ – perfectly matches the UK’s current zeitgeist.