Richard III - Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

Richard III - Review * 06 July 2014


Newly opened at Trafalgar Studios in the heart of London, Jamie Lloyd's thrilling, chaotic, and bloody production of William Shakespeare's portrait of clawing yet aspirational villainy stars Martin Freeman as the deformed and homicidal monarch, alongside a superb ensemble cast.

This new interpretation of one of the Bard's most political plays cannot quite fall into the 'traditional' or 'modern-dress' camps for which Shakespeare is most popularly performed. Instead, it finds itself in the fascinating and indeed inspired placement of 'modern-period', transferring the action to a dystopic, alternate late 1970's Britain that is in the midst of a military coup. This is a very British point of action, a time period of reality which is historically referred to as the 'Winter of Discontent', a time of fuel rationing, litter in the streets, and bodies failing to be interred. Confined to the intimate stage in Studio One of the Trafalgar Studios, we are presented with a gloomy, halogen lit office of confrontationally placed oak desks, cigarette trays, and bottles of Scotch, with the cast appearing in military uniform and tweed or pastel dress, the men tremendously side burned, moustached, or bearded. These warring heads of historic houses from the War of the Roses are recast as bickering generals. It is supremely evocative of a distinct moment in national history, taken with a hellish twist. In addition, the text of the play itself has been abridged to reinforce the setting, material removed or re-ordered to increase the ferocious pace of events.   

All cast enter as one, gas masked and anonymous, but upon the removal of the imposing breathing apparatus Martin Freeman instantly commands your attention as Richard. Bearded, with his hair slicked back, this is a truly complex, nuanced performance, initially understated and still, later ferocious and imposing. While at times Martin plays the role for humour, it is all a charming mask to hide a cynical and sarcastic spitefulness. Wearing a hump, his right arm dead and useless throughout, he is a master manipulator that loathes his deformity while also using it to his distinct advantage. In particular, this Richard effects a limp when it suits him ala Verbal Kint, thus making it a tool to lead others to underestimate him - at the close of the first half (or in the original text, Act Three) when Richard makes a theatrical show of refusing and then accepting the crown, it is at its most pronounced, a deliberate act to engender public sympathy. But when pressed in one of the most striking and violent sequences of the action it all but vanishes, Richard's ruthless and predatory determination allowing him to leap across the assembled desk tops in grunting, straining and animalistic pursuit of his unfortunate quarry. This is a tremendously physical and active role for Martin Freeman, who by the close is drenched in both his own sweat and vast quantities of stage blood. And in a final moment of perhaps pure acting genius, one of Shakespeare's best known last lines for a protagonist ends up used as an ironic closing refrain, not blindly aggressive but comically desperate when faced with certain death.

Backing Martin up is a uniformly excellent cast. Gina McKee, as Queen Elizabeth, is sternly strong before crumbling into desperation under Richard's steely machinations, the deaths of her two sons cracking her will in heartbreaking fashion, all while Freeman quietly sits and sups tomato soup. Jo Stone-Fewings in his standout moment as Buckingham is grandstanding and evangelistic, the studio lights blazing down upon the audience as he speaks directly to us as the baying crowd that is roused to accept Richard as their new monarch. Simon Coombs as Tyrrel and Gerald Kyd as Catesby are cast as Richard's hired assassins, carrying out the business of murder that their master commands with a spectacular variety. Gabrielle Lloyd as the Duchess of York, Richard's mother, imparts genuine disgust with her son in stomping, furious form, while Maggie Steed is a haunted, whispery presence as Queen Margaret, the ensemble fearful of her almost supernatural appearances - something that Lauren O'Neil later actually fulfils as Lady Anne, arriving on stage in vengefully spectral form in Richard's tormented and twisted dreams as he eventually confronts the assembled ghosts of those he has had killed, in a nightmarish re-ordering of the original text that replaces the battle of Bosworth Field.      

This all plays into the technical complexity of Jamie Lloyd's direction, the small stage space constantly filled with action and some true theatrical magic - the use of an imposing fish tank early on as a murder weapon, and Philip Cumbus' closing speech as Richmond reimagined as a victorious television broadcast to a fearful nation are two such examples. As befits the subject matter, this is a bloody piece of work, with the cascading murders carried out both onstage and off, and the evocative office paraphernalia frequently used as inventive weapons of violence. It often goes beyond imagination into gleefully brazen gore - a moment that cannot help but recall the infamous arrival of a cardboard box in David Fincher's film Se7en goes beyond cinematic comparison when we are directly presented with the dripping contents held within. It should be noted, if you find yourself seated in the front row, that you may find yourself handed a t-shirt by the theatre staff to ward off potential arterial spray, and by the close the stage itself is thoroughly spattered with the stuff. Altogether though, like Josie Rourke's electrifying production of Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse last year, this is Shakespeare in thrilling, prescient form, once again reinforcing the agelessness and flexibility of the text. Backed by a superb ensemble, Martin Freeman defies all expectation as the ever vicious despot, wilfully slipping into ever more heinous actions. While some familiar twinkles may be present in his performance forget all previous roles you may associate him with, for this is a far cry from a likeable yet unsatisfied office worker, a loyal army doctor, a brave Hobbit, or even (more recently) a nervously murderous insurance salesman.

For in Richard III, you see Martin Freeman unchained, and it truly is unmissable. 

Richard III is performing at the Trafalgar Studios until September 27 2014. Check ticket availability here.