Shakespeare’s envenomed Richard strips himself naked — emotionally speaking — in the opening soliloquy of “Richard III,” so why shouldn’t Kenneth Branagh’s remarkable “foul toad” first appear before us attired only in underwear, Richard’s misshapen body literally stretched out on what seems to be some kind of rack? The opening of Michael Grandage’s new production of this often produced yet rarely satisfying play makes the audience sit up, and it’s to the credit of a creative team firing on all cylinders that the interpretive excitement rarely abates. We all know that Shakespearean drama’s most renowned “hedgehog” (in the final scene, Branagh is even dressed as one, albeit in Liberace-style flaming red) can be funny and fierce, but I’ve never before clocked a Richard so consumed by pain. “There is no creature loves me,” he cries, determined as a result to engender hate. And as Branagh speaks the line, his delivery totally lacking in self-pity, the play takes on a newfound sting, as befits a ruler who has spent a life on the rack, psychically speaking, well before Grandage’s fearless imagination places him there.
“Richard III” was more or less sold out prior to its press night at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, south Yorkshire, the same venue where Grandage — the theater’s associate director in charge of programming — lured Joseph Fiennes to play Marlowe’s Edward II this time last year. And while it could be argued that bagging Branagh for his first stage role since starring as a decidedly dry Royal Shakespeare Co. Hamlet a decade ago marks an arguably greater coup, no casting gambit really matters if you don’t deliver the goods. Branagh et al. succeed not so much by reinventing the play — the production is far less radical, for instance, than the Richard Eyre-Ian McKellen version that subsequently fueled McKellen’s filmed “Richard III” — but by investigating it truthfully from scratch. The result: a character famed for possessing an arm like a “blasted sapling” is seen to have a soul like one, too. Suffice it to say that as a “foul defacer of God’s handiwork,” Richard acts from experience as a man whom God long ago defaced.
It was pretty much a given that Branagh could handle the verse. The play’s actorish comedy emerges easily and sometimes with bruising force — the quick dismissal of Richard’s “He cannot live” to an early victim: No crisis of conscience there! — while his admission to himself that “Sin will pluck on sin” suggests the actor as a potentially mighty Macbeth. More surprising are the currents of feeling, coupled with an unusual degree of bodily self-disgust, that exert a perverse fascination beyond even Antony Sher’s celebrated crutch-wielding perf of the same role in 1984. Stripped of the garments that camouflage his disfigurement, this Richard isn’t the hunchback of legend but a pasty figure, at once stooped and sad, with a putty-like physique that demands of Branagh a series of punishing contortions in order to bring home the severity of Richard’s physical estrangement from his own self.
For much of the play, Branagh walks the stage with one leg encased in a contraption, which is why it’s a particular shock when he drops to the ground to crawl after Queen Margaret (the supreme Barbara Jefford) seeking repentance. Or, earlier on, hurls off him the young lords whose lives he will later cut short when they dare to roughhouse with so wretched a specimen of flesh. And though his left arm lies limply by his side, Richard’s right one is at the perpetual ready for a fight, with Branagh snapping to physical life just as startlingly as he allows himself to droop — as if the sheer price of playing the rampaging ruler were worming away at Richard from within. (Remarking “I am not in the giving vein,” he hurls Buckingham to the ground with just his good arm.)
So revelatory is its central perf that one risks overlooking the able support of a distinguished cast, among whom Jefford (Ralph Fiennes’ recent, and no less peerless, Volumnia) sets herself apart as a trembling termagant of the highest order. If the other women aren’t in her league (Avril Elgar’s Duchess of York is especially pro forma), the men are excellent down the line. Danny Webb’s Buckingham makes an unusually moving cohort-turned-victim, his realization that All Soul’s Day is also his own doomsday coming too late to help. Among an ensemble made up to some degree of longtime Branagh colleagues, Gerard Horan (Clarence) and Jimmy Yuill (Hastings) remind us that what can sometimes seem like thespian clubbishness has a basis in reason: Both men are very good.
Still, it’s hard to imagine attention placed anywhere else once Branagh stalks Christopher Oram’s sparely appointed stage, lit with its own distinctive bite by Tim Mitchell to the alternately ceremonial and elegiac strains of Julian Philips’ original score. This play is popular in the same way that villainy (especially in the theater) so often is: Richard III is the malformed miscreant you love to hate. How often, though, is a character’s external capacity for the horrific achieved without sacrificing a sense of the pain that begins within? Let’s hope it isn’t another 10 years before this actor — here playing a character “made blind with weeping” — leaves a Shakespearean perennial looking blindingly new.