Review: Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, London

IMG_6418During my recent travels, I was lucky enough to see Martin Freeman in the title role of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios in London.

Of course, while Freeman was a major draw for me (I’m a sucker for a Watson), I’m always up for a spot of Shakespeare, particularly with plays I’m not as familiar with. I’m sure I’ve seen this staged before, but couldn’t for the life of me tell you where or when. I’m most familiar with the splendid film starring Ian McKellen and featuring folks like Robert Downey Junior, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, NIgel Hawthorn and Maggie Smith.

This London production has a splendid ensemble cast of its own, including the marvellous Maggie Steed as a (literally) haunting Queen Margaret and Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth (mother of the hapless Princes in the Tower).

This production is set in the turbulent 1970s – the program notes refer to specific political turmoil in the UK that meant little to me, but the sense of revolution and political machinations doesn’t need a specific set of events to give the setting flavour. The set is both a blessing and a curse – the desks block out the stage into a series of barriers, which effectively convey the idea that everyone is at odds with and estranged from everyone else. Certainly, Richard’s plots and schemes wouldn’t have been half so effective if his targets had been at all unified, but their rivalries and old enmities make it easy for him to divide and conquer (and, of course, murder horribly on a regular basis).

While excellent at physically expressing this division, the choice to break up the scenery in this way can be a bit restrictive in how the space is used, with characters having to constantly allow for the obstacles. Still, even compartmentalised, the area is used well.

When I told people I was going to see Martin Freeman in Richard III, many expressed doubt. That nice Tim from The Office? The Hobbit? That lovely John Watson in Sherlock? A vicious, cold-blooded laughing, limping murderer? Really?

Oh yes, people. Really. Freeman has always had a great command of his physicality, and here he portrays Richard (slight hunch, slight limp, and a right arm he never uses for the duration) with all the wicked, gleeful viciousness that the role gives scope for. From that first speech, where Richard confesses his aims to commit the most terrible villainy to spite the world that has no place for him, Freeman’s portrayal of a calculating and intelligent Richard has an acidic, sharp edge to it, filled with energy and edginess There’s plenty of wicked humour too: it’s a miracle of writing, that such an utter bastard can speak to the audience through humour so that we laugh even as we deplore his cruelty.

And when Richard gains his crown and can afford to pull back on his destructive venom, what does he do? He plans the murders of his nephew and his wife and anyone else he thinks could threaten him. His brutality begins to look less like ambition and a lot more like pure spite, pure hatred and, let’s face it, a whole truckload of self-destructive self loathing as well.

For me, there have always been two key scenes in Richard III to make it work. There has to be some humanity in Richard. Not human kindness, no – but a sense that someone so vile is still very much a human being. That he is not some alien embodiment of hate, but a very human embodiment of that emotion. So, for me, there are two key scenes in which this is demonstrated.

The first is his confrontation with his mother, after he has despatched of his brothers yet still somehow hopes for some word of motherly love from her. From the script, I’ve always suspected that her dislike of him predates his sly and vicious plans as an adult – and that she has recoiled from him since he was a child; and that therefore, in terms of modern understanding of development, Richard is asa much as product of his treatment from birth as to his inate nature. Mackellen’s portrayal in the film captured this well, and Freeman manages that same unexpected sense of vulnerability here. Certainly, if she had offered Richard any kindness in this scene, I suspect it would have been spat on and thrown back in her face, but the glimpse of how he came to be this cruel king is, to me, an important insight to his motivations.

The second key scene in understanding Richard’s humanity is late in the second half, when he wakes from nightmares before the final battle and confesses to his own self that he does not love himself – “in fact I rather hate myself, for the evil that I have done” (to paraphrase). Again, Freeman conveys a human frailty and vulnerability here without letting us forget that Richard chose to be what he is. There is understanding here, without offering excuses.

In the scene where Richard has to be ‘persuaded’ to accept the crown, Freeman at last exaggerates the limp and the hunch, as though Richard is daring them all to make him their king, with all the physical deformities for which he has been mocked all his life. Once he accepts the kingship, he straightens his back and gets right into the business of demonstrating that he can be so much worse than anything he was ever accused of before in his life.

Interestingly, Richard’s death is the only one in the play that’s quick – perhaps because Richard has spent the entire play slowly dying, committing a horrible kind of suicide through spite. There’s a relief in it, when he drops like a stone, that all the suffering is finally done, his own as well as that he has inflicted on his lacerated and bloodied kingdom.

I’ve focused on Freeman’s performance here, but it is, as I said, a superb ensemble cast. Maggie Steed haunts the stage as the deposed Queen Margaret, laying curses and watching with genteel glee (at one stage sipping on a teacup full of, apparently, blood) as every curse comes to pass. In her way she’s as cruel as Richard, motivated by revenge.  Gerald Kyd’s Catesby and Jo Stone-Fewings’ Buckingham are excellent foils for Richard’s acid wit, and Paul Leonard brings dignity to the role of Stanley, caught in the middle of his duty and his better sense. Lauren O’Neill’s tragic Lady Ann and McKee’s defiant Elizabeth are strong enough presences to hold the stage against such an intense (and intensely vicious) Richard.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is crisp, keeping the pace snappy – except for those brilliantly excruciating murders (some of which usually happen off stage) which are drawn out with perfect timing. Murder is messy, and people on the whole die slowly and horribly – and it’s brutal and uncomfortable and unflinching. (Well, maybe the audience is flinching. I know I flinched, anyway.)

I could write for a long time about my thoughts on the story and the script, and how those ideas are teased out here, but that’s perhaps a whole other essay. What I conclude is this: Lloyd’s production of Richard III is excellent; fast, funny, brutal and very, very human.

If you can’t make it to London for the productions last days (it closes on 27 september) here are some clips of the cast talking about it, including Martin Freeman in his Richard III beard. He doesn’t look nearly so terrifying here as he does in the play.

Visit the Trafalgar Studios Richard III site. (If you go, be warned, these are some of the most uncomfortable theatre seats I’ve ever had to sit in. And I’ve sat in a lot of bloody uncomfortable theatre seats.)

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.