thu 25/07/2024

Richard III, Trafalgar Studios | reviews, news & interviews

Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

Martin Freeman’s smooth villainy fails to reveal the twisted depths of his hunchback king

Just in case you forget who's king around here. Martin Freeman, with Lauren O'Neil in Richard IIIMarc Brenner

Imagine Dr Watson trying his hand at Moriarty? That’s not the challenge of this Richard III, but the exciting prospect instead is to see an actor usually called upon to be the sidekick and nice guy asked to come front and centre as a diabolical villain.

I still don’t doubt that Martin Freeman has the chops for such a transition. That said, he doesn’t quite pull it off. The irony is that while he has brought a new dimension to his small-screen Watson, as a casualty of war fuelled by a certain self-loathing, he doesn’t offer a similar psychological depth to a character who demands it.

Freeman’s failure is also that of Jamie Lloyd’s production, which is entertaining and occasionally thrilling, but whose interpretation leaves its central character without his customary motivation.

The conceit is to cast Shakespeare’s “winter of discontent” forward to Britain’s similarly-named period of political and social upheaval in the late Seventies. What Richard decries as the “weak piping time of peace” becomes the uneasy truce between bureaucrats, union barons and the military, with class and regional differences to the fore, Richard planning the sort of coup that many believe was contemplated during that tumultuous decade.

In Soutra Gilmour’s set, the scene of politicking and conspiracy is not the court, but a bland committee room, two long tables facing each other with place settings for the King and others (which will change during the course of the power struggle), flanked by office desks, telephones and television sets. An elevator is to one side, a dirty Union Jack nearby; the constant malfunctioning of everything in the room represents the pervading sense of society falling into disrepair and decay. 

The play opens with a burst of noise, scenes of unrest on the TV sets and the eruption into the room of soldiers wearing gas masks. Amongst these is Richard himself, who grabs a microphone in order to praise the “glorious summer” to Edward directly, before addressing his real intentions to the audience.

There’s none of the "bottled spider" here, more a military man who has nonchalantly decided that he wants power for himself. His seduction of Lady Anne (Lauren O’Neil) is followed by a shrug of the shoulders and a knowing glance, as if to say, “why not?” Freeman’s clipped, RP delivery and matter-of-fact villainy projects an upper class caddishness, while evoking Alec Guinness’s smoothly psychotic Ealing villains. Richard’s deformities are made light of: the arm stiffly and inconspicuously hangs to one side, the hump is modest, and the limp non-existent until Richard ramps up an exaggerated one for PR effect.

This is a novel, even daring approach, but also limiting – missing the self-loathing and the twisted psychology that drives Richard’s ambitions, and the play itself. As the offhand gestures after each crime become repetitive, and lose their comic charm, we cry out for something more.

Around Richard, the re-imagining of the court as a contemporary political milieu is nicely worked, with Buckingham (Jo Stone-Fewings) as a preening civil servant who manages Richard’s ascension with brilliant showmanship, and Hastings (Forbes Masson) a sweaty union baron who looks like a cross between Scargill and Kinnock; the Woodvilles, those hated outsiders, are northerners – Gina McKee’s Queen Elizabeth (pictured above) conveying enormous gravitas, but Joshua Lacey’s shiny-suited Rivers coming across as someone you’d expect to see on a bad Saturday night in Newcastle.

It’s also nice to see the intrigue given a public dimension, underlined by the use of the onstage microphones at key moments – Richard’s opening soliloquy, Queen Margaret’s curse, Buckingham’s rallying call for Richard, Edward’s entreating of his bickering countrymen to “swear your love”, which plays like an arbitration during which tea and sandwiches are served.

As with Lloyd's Macbeth, the imagination extends to the bloodletting. The murder of Clarence, drowned in a fish tank (pictured above), leaves you wondering how they pulled it off so realistically; Richard’s murder of Anne (something we don’t usually see) has an execution of which Hitchcock would have been proud.

And yet the choreographed violence feels like a distraction, taking not just a lot of time, but time that may have been better spent on character. The set itself comes to reflect the play’s shortcomings: for a few scenes it feels wonderfully apt, but by the end cluttered and constraining, like a dance floor with too many chairs.

There’s none of the 'bottled spider' here, more a military man who has nonchalantly decided that he wants power for himself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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