Reactions to Richard III on screen

3rd August 2016

Just under a fortnight ago we produced for Picturehouse Entertainment and the Almeida Theatre the cinema broadcast of the latter’s production of Richard III. Directed on stage by Rupert Goold, this featured Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and a truly exceptional cast. The theatre show has only a few performances left but there are encore screenings of the cinema presentation – and full details of those can be found here. The broadcast has prompted some stimulating online discussion, and this post contains pointers to three pieces that are well worth reading.

For the Almeida’s blog, resident director Emma Butler has reflected on the broadcast production. As she writes,

The process was orchestrated around the central goal of capturing the production as it is on stage. Live audiences are presented with a whole image, action and reaction, and are guided by live elements as to where to look. With the camera, Rupert and the Illuminations team, led by Screen Director Robin Lough and Producer John Wyver, made those decisions for us.

If you saw the broadcast, you will know that one and two person shots were the common choice, and this was based on a desire to focus on the eyes and faces of the actors, highlighting the psychological intricacies of their performances. The detail of the work lent itself beautifully to these decisions; the smallest minutiae of performance was highlighted and thrown into sharp relief.

Peter Kirwan, University of Nottingham, has reviewed the broadcast for his site The Bardathon. Over the past five years and more, Peter has consistently posted thoughtful, insightful and deeply informed reviews of cinema broadcasts of Shakespeare, and his response to Richard III is another such. In a sympathetic and broadly positive review, he is strongly critical of the inclusion of the rape of Queen Elizabeth (played by Aislin McGuickin) by Richard (Ralph Fiennes):

I’m angry, obviously; not only because of a deeply misguided performance choice that seems to me to be part of a broader escalation of violent strategies to silence female characters, but also by this choice’s anomalous presence in an otherwise fascinating production. Crisply spoken and conceptually invigorating, Goold’s production thrived on subtleties and grace notes, at least until Richard bludgeoned them into the soil.

In a long discussion of many aspects of the production, Peter considers the broadcast approach, and his comments resonate with the approach that Emma Butler describes above:

It was easier, in some ways, to view this production as a selection of individual performances, given the tightness of the camera angles. This was the first production to be broadcast live from the Almeida, and there was some shakiness in the editing as camera operators were caught off guard. The close-ups came at the expenses of the broader view of the stage, with many important reaction shots missing and key visual devices (notably the appearance of the skulls) very difficult to see. The attempt to create some more kinetic camera work during the final battle, led by Tom Canton’s hilariously heroic Richmond, was welcome, but somewhat curtailed by the stop-start nature of the sequences.

At Reviewing Shakespeare, Sarah Olive from the University of York has written a detailed response to the production after seeing it in the cinema. Her interest is less in the process of translating this to the cinema screen, and she concentrates on five ways in which it ‘is totally on trend that don’t involve comparing the protagonist and Michael Gove’. She is also somewhat more sympathetic to the inclusion of the rape scene:

It is a legitimate purpose of theatre to unsettle audiences. Richard raping Elizabeth certainly, viscerally, unsettled the audience watching the live cinema relay – people flinched and shifted in their chairs. Until this moment, the audience had been laughing along with Richard, even along with his misogynist ‘jokes’, indulgently admiring his evil cunning as though he were a naughty, precocious child rather than a despot. The rape scene was brutally effective in detaching the audience’s sympathy from Richard, though there might be other ways of achieving it. After it, there was no way we could mourn the character’s loss of command or life.

If you have time, do read all three pieces in full – there’s lots more to ponder and to illuminate the stage production and its transfer to the cinema.

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