Rupert Goold's production of Shakespeare's crepuscular history play begins in a modern-day Leicester car park. The remains of Richard III – that unfortunate Medieval monarch destined to be remembered forever as a murderous hunchbacked psychopath thanks to Shakespeare's treacherous imagination – were discovered lying under Tarmac there in 2012. The import of the image is clear. The tension between history and myth-making powerfully impacts our understanding of the past. The ghosts of history are always with us. And we live cheek by jowl with the dead, just like Richard, who spends much of this production walking across his own grave.
Goold is usually a flashy-pants director who likes to stamp himself all over the text, but in this unusually understated production, he hands over the reins to Shakespeare, and to his leading man and lady, British acting heavyweights Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave. Fiennes, so good on screen at revealing the cold marrow of evil in characters as diverse as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List and Voldemort in Harry Potter, here gives us a Richard that oozes misanthropic indifference. That famous sense of humour is as icy as the moon. He sets about slaughtering his way to the throne with an almost corporate efficiency: Like all despots, he understands the advantage in looking ordinary. And that old neurosis regarding his sexual desirability manifests itself here in the form of flat-out misogyny. Shockingly, he "persuades" Elizabeth to hand over her daughter by raping her. His "seduction" of Anne is scarcely less sexually violent.
Redgrave is a radical Queen Margaret, drifting around the stage in a boiler suit clutching a doll, her white hair hanging round her face in bedraggled, uncombed strands. She strips away the sound and fury that usually accompanies the bereaved Queen's deranged curses to reveal a level of psychological disturbance that is all the more frightening for its very matter-of-factness. The grief of women and the cumulative damage of history – both such open, weeping wounds in this play – find their broken, exhausted voice in Redgrave's astonishing interpretation.
Goold sets his production in a timeless, shadow-filled space where the sunlight never reaches, as though we are in the antechamber of hell itself. Along the back wall, a grinning skull appears among the brickwork each time Richard or his henchmen polish someone off. Everywhere there is a lingering claustrophobia, as though the mud of that grave in Leicester is closing in on us.
And yet, despite all this, Goold's production never catches fire. Partly it's to do with the pace, which is slow when it should zip along. (Richard III is nothing if not a pulsing political thriller.) Yet it's also a bit to do with Fiennes. Shakespeare's Richard is a slippery devil, a chap who relies to a fair degree on our complicity. Like Anne, we can't help but be seduced against our will by that diabolic wit, that restless, ironic charm. Yet Fiennes' Richard never wheedles his way into the darker reaches of our soul, never finds the black charisma that makes Richard III one of the truly great villains. We remain impressed but fatally unmoved.