There is much to like about Richard III. He is an one-man slaughter house, although he is more the senior executive than the cleaver. He is manipulative but he confides in us. In that respect, he is a bit like Hannibal. We spent so much time in his head we might as well like him. Or even trust him. And here is the great truth about Richard III: everyone knows he is the villain so he doesn’t have to be played as one.
Martin Freeman made his name playing “good guys” but this is an oversimplification (as most things in the media are). His performances brim with intelligence and occasional frustration. As Richard III, he starts tentatively but quickly hits his stride. In the scene where Richard does the impossible and woos Anne over her husband’s dead body, the openness of his approach is both alluring and frightening. If his good guys are frustrated by their virtue, his bad guy is frustrated by the absence of ambition. That’s why he kills, because no one is as ambitious as he is. It seems fair. At least to him. But he makes a pretty good case of it.
His performance is a rich combination of contempt, impatience, a sense of the ridiculous and a sweaty kind of wit, no more so than when he faces his nightmares. His final monologue is brilliant, his final moments – with a sly node to Indiana Jones – worthy of a vile but seductive king.
The other actors enter the fray with the same energy and glee: Forbes Masson is a brilliantly confident Hastings, a man who fancies himself a wheeler and dealer, only to realise that his head has been on the block all along. Gina Mckee is a heartbreaking Elizabeth, especially when Richard tries to convince her to broker a marriage with her daughter. She is broken by grief and fear but still won’t give him an inch. Lauren O’Neil’s Anne projects an intelligent kind of stoicism and. when it counts, she shows she is made of a harder metal.
Jamie Lloyd has a no nonsense approach to Shakespeare. He goes for the jugular, sort of speak. I don’t mean he is plain but he finds a way to untangle the threads and that makes for a very satisfying telling of the story. The 70s setting is a blessing and a curse. I come from a country that had a proper hardcore dictatorship in the 70s and everything in the production – the faded yellows and the static of interrupted tv broadcasts – smelt of that fear. But the design, while beautiful in itself, is impractical: the set is dominated by two long desks and five smaller ones. The actors have no space to move and they have to work hard to keep the momentum going.
Regardless, the vitality of the production is hard to deem. It captures a place where fear goes hand in hand with ambition, and the flow of blood, sweat and tears is the price one accepts to pay for sitting at the head of the table for a precious few moments.
In a time-honoured tradition with my Shakespeare reviews, the following section has SPOILERS. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled about the production.
And so, what about Lady Anne? In Shakespeare’s text, Richard gets married to her and then rids of her in his usual underhanded way (with poison, or something similar, somewhere off stage). Not so here. Richard tells Gatesby
“Rumour it abroad That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die”.
in the presence of Anne, who listens horrified. In the next scene, Anne – fully aware of what’s about to happen – tells Buckingham:
“For never yet one hour in his bed Have I enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep”.
And after that, Richard meets his wife and he kills her with his bare hands. This scene is horrific. Anne puts an almighty fight but in the end Richard manages to choke her with a telephone cord (this is echoed in his nightmare at the end of the play) and cuts her. All the while, he exerts and grunts and some of it is reminiscent of sexual activity. It’s disturbing, it’s harrowing and a line is crossed.
Richard finds a strange kind of comeuppance in his final moments: face to face with Richmond, he carries only a knife while Richmond points a gun at him. Richard pulls a face at the inadequacy of his weapon, cries for a horse and Richmond shoots at him. It’s the right combination of shocking, silly, weird and pointless that any struggle for power is.
It’s exciting to see Trafalgar Transformed back after an amazing first season, in which I was blown away by The Pride and quite liked Macbeth. The newest play in the season is Richard III starring Martin Freeman. An interesting choice to play Richard III and certainly got me excited.
Jamie Lloyd’s production is curious – as you walk into the theatre and see the stage set-up in a kind of 70s cabinet office, you start trying to piece Richard III together with what you know about the 70s. To be honest, I don’t know much. I spent the whole of the play trying to understand why it was set during that period, and it wasn’t until I was on my way home on the bus reading the programme that I realised I was just ignorant of the 1979 Winter of Discontent. I was born in that year, yet have little knowledge of it. Is it therefore a strong enough part of history that the reference will be clear to the average audience member? I don’t think so, personally, but time will tell.
So the set theme doesn’t really add to the experience of the play, but that doesn’t wholly matter. (Although you really are asked to use you imagination when Richard cries out “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) There’s strength in the pacing, the movement and, of course, the acting. I was pleasantly surprised by Martin Freeman’s performance. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that he just plays Martin Freeman, so to see him let go of what I think are his acting crutches (certain facial expressions) and really embody a character was great. He was so committed and really took command of the role.
Freeman’s Richard is not the caricature I generally imagine Richard III to be. We’ve seen the hunchbacks with pronounced limps and walking sticks, but here he is much more understated. He has tons of charisma and plays the comedic elements well, grabbing the attention and sympathies of the audience from the outset in his opening monologue. Freeman is very adept at delivering the dry humour of Richard III, something I think is probably quite natural for him.
Jamie Lloyd has chosen to stage a bloody Richard III with deaths happening on stage, rather than off, as it was written. It increases the tension and the action; I have no idea how traditionalists will feel about that. But I am not a traditionalist and I enjoy a bloodbath on stage. In fact, I often feel with Shakespeare that the deaths are not tangible, real things -I like gritty, dirty theatre, so I appreciated the impact that the deaths had on me in this production. I was also on the front row, so there’s a very real connection you make as an audience member to the play as a whole when someone is strangled right in front of you. (Splash back from the blood is not as bad as we were lead to believe, so don’t worry on that front!)
The performance got a full standing ovation from everyone aside from myself and friend. It’s a first preview and there were mistakes. We got a tumble from Gina McKee, a nipple slip when someone’s boob popped out, a fumbled line here or there – it’s a first preview, this is completely acceptable, but leave the standing ovation to when a performance is so perfect it knocks your socks off! I understand Martin Freeman is popular, but I have no bigger pet peeve than everything getting a standing ovation these days…I rarely give them…
Richard III is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27th September.