With a domineering Ralph Fiennes at its black heart, Rupert Goold’s “Richard III” is a difficult piece for difficult times. Now starring at the Almeida Theater with a cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Fiennes gives us a ruthless Richard who creeps to power by stealth. But against that political narrative, Goold turns his focus on aesthetics: how history and literature inform one another, the distance between real and represented death and, in particular, the dramatic appeal of evil. Between the two, something slippery and nuanced emerges. There is an art to politics, after all, and a politics to art.

On a day in which one of the most ludicrous British politicians of recent times, the jocund Nigel Farage, unveiled a poster campaign that directly echoed Nazi propaganda, the sight of a “smiling villain” slipping into despotism is a chilling one. Fiennes slinks towards totalitarianism as Richard. He seems almost grandfatherly at first, with his stoop and stick. No one thinks to stop him before it’s far too late.

Fiennes doesn’t fawn or flatter, but still “seems a saint when most I play the devil.” Appearances have given him a free pass, whatever his actions, and it’s bamboozling. He seduces Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne like a cobra, winding her in with words then — snap — clutching at her crotch; he smiles an insipid smile at his coronation. Bit by bit, the pretense falls away. His thugs get uniforms. His frailty tenses into hunched muscularity. Behind him the skulls of his victims catch the light like trophies.

What makes this so modern — both politically and theatrically — is its stark self-awareness. Goold lets history jostle with fiction. The show starts with a curved spine pulled out of the ground: that S-bend of bone, dug up in Leicester and identified as the remains of Richard III. You can see its shape running down Fiennes’ back — spiked vertebrae visible through his shirt — but this isn’t the historical Richard. In modern dress, head to toe in black, he addresses us directly, a creature of the stage. He swishes his cane like a showman — Stan Laurel gone sour — confides in us, then counterfeits. We see through his Richard as we do any demagogue, yet still it still works like a charm.

It’s a glossy production, but one that’s always aware of its gloss. Artfully dressed and beautifully staged, its violence slips down all too easily. Richard’s hit men, suited and booted like Guy Ritchie’s gangsters, take their time as they go to town. Scott Handy’s mournful Clarence is drowned in an oil drum; James Garnon’s naïve Hastings, decapitated at the dining table. Though they’re played realistically, these deaths are nonetheless alluring, and all the more so because of the archness around them, a lick of black comedy to lighten the mood.

The balance, always, is between reality and representation. Art, which ought to warn against history, is distorted for entertainment’s sake, but so too is politics. When there’s no separating fact from fiction, that’s dangerous territory and it’s no coincidence that, against Richard’s dissembling, Tom Canton’s Richmond is a straightforward knight in shining armor; a man who puts forth “our good cause” and, for the first time, calls a tyrant “a bloody tyrant” without recourse to metaphor. That, Goold suggests, is what these topsy-turvy times call for.

It’s a sophisticated staging, very finely calibrated, but its self-awareness can send you spiraling. Peering through so many layers of reality and artifice — even scenery chewing looks like a Brechtian technique here — you can lose hold of the story. The four women, in particular, get lost: Redgrave’s Margaret wondering around in a jumpsuit with a bedraggled doll under her arm; Aislin McGuckin’s Elizabeth raped by Richard for no good reason. There’s so much at play, so much to pick through, that, for all its backbone, this never sends shivers down the spine.

London Theater Review: ‘Richard III’ with Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave

Almeida Theater, London; 325 seats; £48 ($69) top. Opened, reviewed June 15, 2016. Running time: <strong>3 HOURS, 20 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.
  • Crew: Directed by Rupert Goold; Production design, Hildegard Bechtler; Costume, Jon Morrell; lighting, Jon Clark; composition and sound, Adam Cork; fight direction, Terry King.
  • Cast: Joseph Arkley, David Annen, Benedict Barker, Tom Canton, Daniel Cerqueira, Simon Coates, Susan Engel, Ralph Fiennes, James Garnon, Mark Hadfield, Scott Handy, Finbar Lynch, Aislin McGuckin, Joseph Mydell, Vanessa Redgrave, Joshua Riley, Lukas Rolfe, Joanna Vanderham, Baxter Westby, Oliver Whitehouse.
  • Music By: