Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1
I have been looking forward to seeing Martin Freeman star in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays ‘Richard III’ for a good long while. After fellow Hobbit-star Richard Armitage’s stunning performance in ‘The Crucible’ earlier this year, and James McAvoy’s pretty great ‘Macbeth’ through the same programme, Trafalgar Transformed last year, I had pretty high expectations of this production. And as a production, it was actually fantastic. In terms of Richard himself, however, I was left a little disappointed.
It’s not that Freeman is acts badly. As anyone who’s seen ‘Sherlock’ (my favourite TV show of all time) knows, he’s awesome! The trouble is that this portrait of the charismatic, seductively evil King Richard becomes a little one dimensional. It’s clear this is from a directorial choice by Freeman and director Jamie Lloyd, rather than by error, but let’s just say, if I were them, I wouldn’t have chosen that route. To me, Richard should be like Edmund in King Lear; through his sarcasm and jokes and copious soliloquies he seduces the audience into being his conspirators; then before they know what has happened they are rooting for a cold-blooded murderer. It’s a great illustration of how evil dictators can charm their way into power.
Unfortunately, this production chooses to make Richard just purely evil. He is awkward and stern right from the beginning. Like McAvoy’s Macbeth, as soon as they enter you can tell ‘this is a nasty man’. There’s no suspense to the play, there’s no feeling it could go any other way, and you just can’t understand why anybody would ever trust this man. During the classic ‘speech to the public’ scene when Richard appears holding a Bible, it’s Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham who really works the crowd, rather than Richard himself.
All this being said, Freeman comes into his own in the second act, when Richard’s truly malevolent side is exposed to one and all. He’s got what he wanted and so now he doesn’t need to act a part anymore, and this is where Freeman starts to live to up to his reputation. Threatening, a cold-blooded killer, and yet terrified of losing it all, I especially liked him talking to himself in his tent before the infamous battle.
Talking of other cast members, Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth is absolutely amazing. Her pitiful sobs after her sons are killed are heart-wrenching and yet she is a strong and dignified presence throughout. Gerald Kyd was horribly amoral as Catesby, Joshua Lacey as Lord Rivers was very charismatic and Philip Cumbus (one of my favourite regular Globe-ers) was, as always, brilliant as Richmond. Margaret’s curse played a huge part in creating the fatalistic atmosphere in this production, and Maggie Steed was nicely bitter in this tricky part.
The set and production really get across the utter chaos and bloodiness of the play. It was set in an office in the 1970s which created some amazingly disturbing contrasts; one minute a man was being drowned in a fish tank (and the actor was under for an infeasible amount of time! I’m impressed!) and the water was slowly turning crimson, and the next everyone was sitting round drinking coffee, as twinkly lift music played in the background. I loved that they left the blood-filled tank onstage – it was a visual representation of the shockingly violent undertones to the seemingly civilised society. Lord Rivers’ death was also brilliantly dramatic, and the haunting ghost scene was the best I’ve ever seen it done.
The ending was almost my favourite moment of all. Richard was dead, the audience breathed a sigh of relief. The right person won, the country was saved! Richmond made a live TV speech pleading for peace. Supposedly. Whilst saying these words of amity and cease-fire, he had an out-of-place ferocious intensity. One could feel the audience grow uneasy. The speech finished. Silence. Then, amongst all the bleeding bodies on the stage, an aggressive yell of triumph from Richmond. After all of this anarchy, all of this thinking Richard was the embodiment of evil, the villain of the piece, the final moments created an awful notion that all no one was really fighting for England. All anyone really wanted was power.
This is an intense, bloodthirsty production, which certainly presents a new twist of a marvellous play. Personally, I feel that the portrayal of Richard is a little simple, and, at least in the first act, Freeman is somewhat lacking in the seductive charisma which, to me, is the highlight of the script. However, the production is still entertaining – there were a reasonable amount of laughs – and, more importantly, I think, Lloyd really gets across a disturbing and fascinatingly dark atmosphere. The play improves as it continues; the ghost scene is stunning and the ending really gives you something to think about.
‘Richard III’ at the Trafalgar Studios as part of the Trafalgar Transformed program: 3/5 stars