THEATRE REVIEW: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

directed by Jamie Lloyd

ran until 27 September

I’ll admit I’ve been very slow at getting this one up, so by now Trafalgar Transformed has moved onto its next project of East is East, starring Jane Horrocks. But while Martin Freeman and the cast of Richard III were in residence, theatreland and the wider press were buzzing with the news that the Sherlock and The Hobbit star was taking on one of the most notorious Shakespearean roles. It is, as has been said many a time before, an unlikely casting. How could the man who has played such loveable characters as Bilbo Baggins and Tim from The Office convince as the villainous king? What’s more, it emerged, would you be able to hear him over the reported screams of Sherlock super-fans, or see him through the fountains of fake blood that supposedly showered the audience?

Richard III @ Traf Studios
Martin Freeman as Richard III at Trafalgar Studios this summer

As is often the case, these factors were more than a little over-hyped. On the day I attended, there were no screeching hordes and, despite all of us in the front three rows being provided with protective t-shirts, only one woman who found herself slightly sprayed with the stage blood. As for whether Freeman is any good – well, for the first ten minutes or so, I was worried. His delivery is unusual, far from the lyricism or flowing quality often associated with Shakespearean verse. Instead it is jerky, barbed and off-beat, with a staccato rhythm that takes you by surprise and is sure to divide opinion. This odd quality of speech takes a bit of getting used to, and risks coming across as rather flat. Yet somehow both steely confidence and overwhelming insecurity begin to emerge, giving the character light and shade. His attempted courting of Lady Anne (Lauren O’Neil) is blundering and comic, if wincingly awkward in its lack of charisma and sexuality, and as his actions become ever bloodier, he turns each sense of self-doubt or ugliness into an increasingly violent act of aggression. His murder of Anne is not just the disposal of something he no longer needs but, protracted as it is, appears as a vehicle through which to pour out all his resentment that he is not a man who attracts female attention.

Jamie Lloyd always revels in his reinterpretation of the Bard’s works, but here the setting is a little hit and miss. At times the 1970s office location works seamlessly, with its shifts of power and secret alliances; even the bathos of Clarence’s death, drowned in the goldfish tank (much to the horror of PETA…), remains effective. Yet the relevance of the 1970s “winter of discontent” setting is lost beyond the obvious resonance of the opening lines: Lloyd may have done a great job in making this Richard III accessible for first-time theatregoers, but how many of the audience – myself included – really grasp the subtleties of his socio-historical commentary without a detailed read of the programme? What’s more, while the mundanity of an office makes the bloody violence even more shocking in comparison, other elements just don’t fit the package. While Maggie Steed gives a fine performance as “mad” Queen Margaret, the resonance of her curses and prophecies later in the play seem pretty unbelievable; far worse is the fate of Richard’s most iconic line, as “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” becomes a moment of ill-timed, rather cringeworthy comedy, rather than the final desperate pleas of a man who sees his power and life crumbling around him.

an innovative production with a strong ensemble… while its power doesn’t shake the earth, there is energy and focus

However, it can’t be denied that this is an innovative production with a strong ensemble. Gina McKee is fantastic as Queen Elizabeth, despairing and anguished, fleshing out one of Shakespeare’s typically undervalued female roles; Jo Stone-Fewings and Joshua Lacey both stand out as Buckingham and Rivers respectively; and Philip Cumbus is convincing as the young Richmond, nervous yet steely on the eve of battle. Freeman’s performance strengthens as the piece continues, his vicious and cruel logic rather than wild passions pushing the play into darker regions. He is poisonous rather than ferocious, and whether his acerbic Richard appeals is really a matter of taste. For me, it is in the end an unusual but satisfying rendition of the part that succeeds in bringing out black humour rarely seen in one of the cruellest of the Bard’s villains.

Despite a few jarring moments, Lloyd and his cast have pulled off an ultimately impressive production that by and large capitalises on its intimate feel; while its power doesn’t shake the earth, there is energy and focus that holds our attention through to its bloody conclusion.


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