Right Royal Charnel House

At his menacing best: Ralph Fiennes in “Richard III” (©Marc Brenner)

Richard III is such a juicy part of villainy (16 slayings at the behest of the royal serial killer, give or take) that it offers a surfeit of dark delights to an incumbent. Outstanding ones have included Ian McKellen as a 1930s fascist dictator in the 1996 TV version and more recently Kevin Spacey’s wry, self-loathing impostor, inviting the audience to collude, in the knowledge that bad behaviour is infinitely more enjoyable to watch than good.

Rupert Goold’s production at Islington’s Almeida begins by invoking the recent discovery of the tyrant’s bones under a Leicester car park — a canny suggestion that what we are to watch is not divorced from our world, but part of the fragmented past on which our own fragile kingdom is built.

Ralph Fiennes is the “foul bunch-backed toad” without the redeeming wit or mischief of the part, a stripped-down version of Richard’s evil to pure psychopathy. The strength of this is that it shows us the unsparing structure of the drama: a quest for power turned charnel house. Fiennes at his menacing best is terrifying, as fans of his portrayal of a mournfully depressive gangster in In Bruges and the camp commandant in Schindler’s List will recall.

When one of the young princes leaps on his hump, hurting both his deformed frame and his vanity, the swordplay that follows is a mere inch from murder, and the line, “So wise so young, they say, do ne’er live long” is a knell of doom for the spry youngsters. A gecko-like transition occurs too when Buckingham (a greasy Finbar Lynch), as his lackey, urges him on to the murder of the young princes to resist “gentle, kind, effeminate remorse”. At the word “effeminate” Fiennes’s expression shoots from smug indulgence to furious resentment.

This Richard’s pursuit of the crown is utterly joyless, more motivated by the pleasure of plotting a killing than of ruling. Goold’s strength is in turning the meaning of Shakespeare’s scenes just a few degrees in a new direction so that we observe a familiar moment with fresh eyes. In a stand-out scene, Richard finally ascends the throne with his kingly garment hanging sloppily off his asymmetric shoulder — a clear echo of the “I do dress me in borrowed robes” from Macbeth — and hurls the crown disconsolately over the back of the royal seat, while his  temporary wife Anne (Joanna Vanderham) stands dejectedly by.

The play allows for interpretation of Richard’s unsatisfied sexuality, and Goold goes full tilt for the view of him as misogynist as well as misanthrope. In the wooing of the luckless Anne, Richard grabs her between the thighs and turns an embrace into a slap. By the time he moves on to Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin) to extort her daughter’s hand, it’s in the form of a full-on rape. That liberty with the text strays too far for good taste or judgment. If adaptations foist a rape on to a play in which every marriage is in effect a rape, by virtue of being coerced, there had better be good reason for it, and in this instance there is not. What Richard wants is to keep securing his endangered kingdom and get a male heir — sex with his prospective mother-in-law is not a motivation. Vanessa Redgrave reinterprets bereft Margaret as a dazed old woman, clutching a doll in memory of her offspring and appearing more like a Greek prophetess of downfall than a raging discarded queen.

The shortcomings are easy to list: Fiennes’s portrayal is unvarying in its grim sadism, which brings out the slightly repetitive nature of the plot: wife, murder, more murder, another wife and so on unto Bosworth Field. We lose the playful duplicity and wink of collusion Spacey brought to the part. Over three and a bit hours, a uniform pace is draining and the battle isn’t much cop. Full marks to Hildegard Bechtler for the tough set design — a monochrome world of grey chain curtains and fifty-shades-of-grey steel, with only that fatal gold crown glinting in contrast. If you can’t lay claim to a ticket, it should look pretty good on screen when the Almeida for the first time joins the National Theatre Live broadcasts and the bunch-backed one hits our cinemas on July 21.

I promised to report back on the National’s Threepenny Opera, having glimpsed a rehearsal for the last issue. Yay, it is good, and arguably rather more so than when Brecht first wrote a cracking cast of nasty characters with a very thin dramatic structure to support Weill’s gorgeous, edgy ballads.

Rufus Norris as director and Simon Stephens as adaptor of the text concoct a mordant meditation on beggary and moral decay in a fantasy East End, pitched somewhere between Dickens and a Penny Dreadful. Visually, it’s a thrill, with Mrs Peachum (the indefatigable Haydn Gwynne) drunkenly taking a run at steep steps in a red sheath dress and commenting on her daughter’s romance with all the glottal finesse of Eastenders’ Pat Butcher. Whores range from the Hogarthian, raddled Jenny (now a Glasgow drug addict) to Macheath’s nemesis: a dead ringer for Marsha Hunt in 1970s afro and hotpants.

Stephens has worked for more than four years on mending the loose stitching of the narrative, in the main to excellent effect.  Macheath’s associates gain characters of their own, including the disabled actor Jamie Beddard’s forthright performance as the brightest of the beggars, who ensures Macheath’s comeuppance in a single stuttered profanity. David Shrubsole’s musical direction works a treat, with a noisy eight-piece band to deliver that indelible 1920s sound. Stephens, like Goold, enjoys stretching famous texts — in this case giving Macheath (Rory Kinnear) an erotic back story with Tiger Brown (a swaggering Peter de Jersey). A bit de trop, that, even for the Weimar years, but this production is so happily bombastic that we don’t much care. Polly (Rosalie Craig) gets her part filled out, rather too UK Feminista to be convincing for a girl from the Peachum household, but Craig trumps any such doubts with an impressive musical theatre timbre.

I also wondered if Kinnear, for all his stage brilliance, was miscast — he lacks the randy charisma of a more alluring Macheath. He too conquers a potential weakness with the chilly stare of a true maniac and a powerful voice. We’re not sorry when he (nearly) goes to the gallows. This being Brecht, we’re not supposed to care, but observe and ponder. It is, however, as fun-filled, mordant and mirthful an evening as was ever produced by the alienation effect.

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