Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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.

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Yohangza Theatre Company

When Tim and I travel, we like to catch a little theatre if we can. This can be a little tricky when visiting a non-English-speaking country. Luckily, we both love Shakespeare and are very familiar with a lot of the Bard’s work. This means that if a local production of a play we’re familiar with is on, we’ll try to see it. We already know the plot and we can concentrate on other elements, like stagecraft and local cultural influences.

I have seen ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ in Italian, with Caesar and the Senate all dressed in Zegna suits. I’ve seen a brillilant Polish theatre company make ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in to a dark, disturbing and powerful work about sexual shame and how forgiveness and healing can come from love. Remembering the gentle and moving power of Thisbe’s speech at the end of this production still makes my skin tingle.

Cast of A Midsummer Night's DreamYohangza Theatre Company’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, if you’ll excuse the pun, poles apart from the dark vision I saw in Krakow – but only in mood and theme. The same excellence is there, and the same infusion of cultural interpretation of Shakespeare’s work to great new effect. It feels slightly like cheating to have surtitles in English, as most of the production is in Korean, but there is a smattering of English used to entertaining effect as well.

This show is a pared down version of the play – only the key plots of the two sets of lovers and the battle between the fairy king and queen remain. After that, however, most bets are off as this small, multi-skilled cast throw themselves into the story with the kind  of energy that makes you think they’ve been consuming nothing but guarana for a month.

Puck is split into two mischievous sprites, called duduri, portrayed with wicked verve by Jung Woo-Keun and Kim Sang-Bo. In this version, Ajumi/Bottomis a woman gathering herbs, and jealous Dot/Titania uses the Duduri to trick her philandering husband Gabi/Oberon into falling in love with the earthy, unlovely mortal.

Meanwhile, the original story of Hang/Lysander and Beok/Hermia running off, only to be followed by Loo/Demetrius and Ik/Helena, with the sprites managing to get both men doting upon Helena, is the one we’ve come to know. Plotwise, anyway.

Yohangza’s production is, as mentioned, filled with exhuberance and energy. Bawdy, skillful, funny and delightful, it’s a joy from start to finish. The cast dash about playing mortals and fairies, playing musical instruments in between. They dance, they leap and bound around the stage and, occasionally, through the audience. There are some inspired stylised fight scenes and physical humour which is both exquisite and hilarious. This is Shakespeare, South Korean style, incorporating Korean concepts in story telling and mythology in the weave of the tale.

It’s a great looking show too – the make up, costumes, spare set design (with it’s little twinkling star field that lights up whenever the stage goes dark) make it lovely and refreshing to take in.

The PucksI felt lighter after watching Yohangza’s troupe zip through their show with such playful joie de vivre. I  felt refreshed, entranced and tickled pink. Also a little gobsmacked at the unfailing energy of the cast, who ran through the audience to wait in the hall outside and proceeded to pose for photos in full make-up, to the clear delight of the crowd who pulled out cameras and mobile phones to take advantage of the moment.

Yohangza Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Playhouse at The Arts Centre from 8-11 September 2010. If you want to see Shakespeare through the eyes of anothe culture, and have some wonderful clownish fun while doing so, you should head along!