Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes as Richard III. Photograph: Marc Brenner

It is very hard to know exactly how to perform Richard III: each way has its dangers. Making Richard the complete villain panders too much to Shakespeare the propagandist. Many of us have read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and believe that most of the charges against him were trumped up by the Tudors; but there is not enough in the play itself to portray a more human and considerate person, no speeches like in The Merchant of Venice that say ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’.

So how does the Almeida solve the staging problem with its superb catch of Ralph Fiennes in the starring role? Well, turn Richard into a buffoon and play it for laughs. And Fiennes does gets titters from the endless irony, slapstick and joking asides that pervade throughout. Certainly the show is lighter. But maybe he goes too far? There are even echoes of Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) from the 70s sitcom Rising Damp in the way Fiennes turns the dialogue into a series of japes.

It is not clear that this portrayal gets to the essence of the play when real darkness enfolds: the politician-turned serial killer gets to the throne but throws away all advantage in the process. Especially as the staging convincingly conveys the sinister purpose: the stark stage, the large crown overhead, the crashing and horror-inspiring chords that mark the scene changes and the sparse but piercing lighting. The supporting cast is superb, in particularVanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret, Aislín McGuckin as Elizabeth and Finbar Lynch as Buckingham.

After the interval, the show settles down as Ralph hams it less, and we see more into Richard’s tortured soul. That is how it should be played and the hope is that Fiennes will have honed his performance during the run.

Richard III
Until 6 August 2016
The Almeida Theatre
020 7359 4404

Richard III is to be live broadcast in cinemas around the world on 21 July partnership with distributor Picturehouse Entertainment.

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