Theatre: A Richard III who takes his tyranny seriously

Theatre: A Richard III who takes his tyranny seriously

Shakespeare’s Richard III has always been popular with actors and audiences. Richard Burbage and David Garrick scored a huge success. So did Edmund Kean. The role was a major turning point in Laurence Olivier’s career. The best Richards of our times have been Ian McKellen on film and the Russian actor Ramaz Chkhikvadze on stage.

Rupert Goold’s production at Almeida Theatre opens with an unnecessary conceit: a prologue in Leicester Council’s car park where Richard’s skeleton (with a misshapen spine) was found in 2012.

Richard III is the ultimate virtuoso Machiavellian villain. Merciless in his audacious ambition for the Crown, he murders anybody who stands in his way; and he can smile while he murders. But Ralph Fiennes, in a strong and intelligent performance, which has total command of the verse, takes no delight in his villainy and nor does he revel in his deformity. Richard has lost that alacrity of spirit for which he is famous. Fiennes is a deadly serious bloody tyrant and murderer. The production’s major innovation is Richard’s rape of Queen Elizabeth (Aislín McGuckin).

Richard is not “funny-ha-ha”, and the audience’s laughter is often inappropriate. Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Margaret is no longer the ranting, cursing termagant, no longer a foul wrinkled witch, but rather a frail, old, mad woman in a hideous boiler suit.

Carrie Cracknell directs an excellent revival of Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece, The Deep Blue Sea, at the National Theatre. Helen McCrory plays Hester Collyer, a respectable middle-class woman, a clergyman’s daughter who has left her husband, a High Court judge, for a much younger and sexier man, a former RAF pilot whose heyday was during the Battle of Britain. He cannot cope with the demands she makes on him and behaves badly, not because he is bad but because he is immature and hopelessly out of his depth.

The play opens with Hester having failed to commit suicide because she forgot to put sufficient money in the gas meter. Peggy Ashcroft was the first actress to play Hester in 1952 and made a major contribution to the finished script. The role has attracted many famous actresses since then. McCrory’s understated performance ranks with the very best. Tom Burke is very good, too, as her lover, a role created by Kenneth More – and that moment when he gives Hester a shilling for the meter, “just in case I’m late for dinner”, can still audibly shock an audience.

In 1936 Arthur Miller, 20 years old and at Michigan University, wrote No Villain and won a playwrighting competition. The prize was $250, which he much needed to pay for his studies. The very autobiographical play remained unperformed until it got its world premiere at a small London pub theatre, the Old Red Lion, last year. Sean Turner’s production has deservedly transferred to Trafalgar Studios.

During the Great Depression, a Jewish family garment manufacturing business is threatened with bankruptcy by industrial action. The boss has two sons, who side with the strikers. It is the eldest (well played by George Turvey), torn between his duty to his father and his duty to his principles, who becomes the spokesman for the communist ideals which 20 years later would lead Miller to be subpoenaed and appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.