Entertainment & Arts

Richard III captures the political moment

Ralph Fiennes Image copyright Mar Brenner
Image caption Ralph Fiennes stars as the totally ruthless Duke of Gloucester, whose treachery succeeds in making him Richard III

When events in British politics get feverish, journalists are fond of wielding allusions to the works of Shakespeare. With Ralph Fiennes taking the lead role, London's Almeida theatre was always likely to have a hit with its current production of Richard III. But has the timing made Shakespeare's chilling tale of ambition, deceit and betrayal more pertinent than ever?

When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, probably in 1592, he was already looking back more than a century.

The play is about the cold-hearted Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is brother to King Edward. The friendless duke craves the throne of England. His ambition and ruthlessness know no bounds.

Yet audiences at the Almeida theatre in London have had no difficulty finding parallels between the end of Plantagenet England and political events in the Britain of 2016. Without exception, the audience members I spoke to in the interval were buzzing with echoes of events since last month's Brexit vote.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Audience members say the play sends a "frisson" down the spine

They had just watched the scheming Richard agree to take the throne, giving an appearance of humility and reluctance. In the role, Fiennes brings out the flinty ambition but somehow also makes Richard funnier than seems possible.

Julie Owen admitted she had been thrilled watching all the intrigue and the backstabbing on stage.

"Richard can't be trusted: he's only out for himself," she said.

"There are such obvious parallels with what's been going on at the top of the Conservative party - and to an extent with Labour too."

Karen Moray said she had sometimes felt in recent days that Britain was heading back to the dark ages.

"We've seen friend turning against friend, and we're surrounded by betrayal everywhere," she said.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Vanessa Redgrave plays Queen Margaret, the embittered widow of Henry VI

"So when you see what Shakespeare wrote, you can't help make comparisons.

"Normally treachery would seem like a term from history - but it seems exactly appropriate to what's going on now in British politics."

Ash Goodman said he felt a frisson run through the audience at the end of Act III.

"It's when Richard says he doesn't want the kingship, but of course it's all an act," he said.

"It's what we've seen with Michael Gove in particular.

Of course the great thing about Shakespeare is soliloquy, so we in the audience find out what Richard really thinks.

"Probably the equivalent today would be a leaked email."

The play's director is Rupert Goold, also the Almeida's artistic director.

"One of the things with Richard is he's incredibly driven towards seizing the crown. But when it comes down to it, it's not clear what he wants to do with power," says Goold.

"It had occurred to me throughout the rehearsal period, but since the referendum I've thought how clear a parallel there is with someone like Boris Johnson - and not only with Boris Johnson.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption "Richard had not grown up assuming he would be king - it makes me think of Jeremy Corbyn," says artistic director Rupert Goold

"If you think of the press conference with Gove and Johnson the day after the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson in particular didn't look at all happy with what he'd just achieved.

"That coincided exactly with how we'd staged the coronation in the play, where Ralph makes it clear victory is not turning out as Richard had hoped.

"He puts the crown to one side as though it's turned out empty and worthless."

Goold says there are parallels with what's going on in the Labour party too, even if slightly less obvious.

"Richard had not grown up assuming he would be king. It makes me think of Jeremy Corbyn, who probably thought his wing of Labour would never supply the party leader and is now absolutely intent on retaining power.

"Obviously Shakespeare lived before the era of party politics - but, in many ways, he was quite a Conservative: he was a self-made man fearful of instability.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Finbar Lynch plays the ill-fated right-hand man to Richard

"In middle-age, he worked hard to keep hold of what he'd earned and he was a great advocate for moderation.

"He understood how politics and power worked, so it's not surprising that more than four centuries later his history plays still resound with truth.'

"Shakespeare was writing about a form of civil war and as England got closer to the death of Elizabeth I [in 1603], there was a great fear of the conflict and dissent people knew might follow.

"He's a great playwright anyway, but he's probably the greatest of all playwrights for difficult times."

I ask Goold what Theresa May or any of her rivals for the Conservative leadership would learn if they came to see the play. He says it would be the same for any senior politician.

"Richard has people bumped off without any remorse," he says.

"But at the end, the ghosts of everyone he's dispatched come back to haunt him.

"That's one thing politicians need to bear in mind."

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Richard "wasn't leading a democracy in any modern sense but his longevity was still defined by popular support", says artistic director Rupert Goold

"But what most disturbs him is the people. How can he persuade the mob he's the right man?

"He wasn't leading a democracy in any modern sense. But his longevity was still defined by popular support, just as eventually it will be for those who want our votes or our support today."

As Goold stands to leave, we both study the whiteboard where he and colleagues have brainstormed a list of playwrights who might potentially get productions over the next couple of seasons. There are interesting contemporary names. But one suggestion leaps out: "Another Shakespeare?"

If the Almeida wants to catch the political moment as perfectly as it has done with Richard III, there could be much worse choices.

Richard III is at the Almeida theatre until 6 August. It can be seen live in cinemas on 21 July.

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