Tag Archives: UK

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.

The Lady Novelist Fangirls Out in Cardiff

fangirlWhen Tim and I were walking down to Cardiff Bay, on our way to the Doctor Who Experience, I said to him: “I’m getting my fangirl geek on for this.”

Tim laughed and laughed at that one. As if my fangirl geek wasn’t already on; wasn’t constantly on. It was a fair cop. I therefore declared that I was flicking dust from my fangirl geek cuffs, setting it hat at a raking angle and walking jauntily towards my date with Adventure! Or at least with the Doctor Who Experience!

I’ve wanted to go to the exhibition and interactive adventure ever since Tim saw it in London a while back and spoke so highly of it. Since then, it had moved to its permanent and purpose-built home in Cardiff, so of course we made time for it on our current Tour of Blighty. (We got in just in time – the Experience closes very shortly for an overhaul, and will reopen in October with a brand new Doctor and a whole new Experience!)

The exhibits are great, but it really is the interactive experience that makes this whole thing worth a visit (and the price of entry). Lighting effects, physical effects, atmospheric sets and effective soundscapes make for a fun and immersive activity – but as always with theatre (which it undoubtedly is) the key element is the participants’ own willing suspension of disbelief. As an adult it would be too easy to decide it’s all just smoke and mirrors (or lighting effects and sensaround) and not be impressed, but you won’t have any fun that way.

DWE 1Instead, I let a lifetime of being spooked by threatening creatures; feeling excited by the appearance of the TARDIS; and yearning to be a companion for just one adventure carry the moment.

I managed to in fact spook myself and duck once or twice and have a rip-roaring good time. If you missed the Matt Smith version, I’m sure the upcoming Peter Capaldi adventure will be just as good. And if you saw this version – now you have an excuse to come back!

The static exhibition will no doubt have more costumes and props to display as well.

But Cardiff has more for the fangirl and boy than the Doctor Who Experience. There’s also a semi-official memorial to a fictional character, and a castle that plays supporting roles in show.

The Ianto Jones Shrine sprang up after that character met his sad fate in the third season of Torchwood. I wasn’t a fan of the first two seasons of the show, but I thought the third was excellent SF (and it had Capaldi in it, huzzah!) but Ianto’s death was sad very effecting. It certainly seems to have made an impact on his fans, who started an impromptu shrine on the boardwalk by Cardiff Bay. It became such a big thing that the local authorities finally erected a permanent plaque about the shrine to a fictional character.

IMG_6039One theme that popped up in several of the letters and notes attached to the grating of the wall was the notion that he did not pass a ‘blip in time’. One item hung on the grate was in memory of a woman who wasn’t able to get to Cardiff in person due to ill health and passed away – her friends leaving a note to her that ‘you aren’t just a blip in time to us, either’.

I’m sure there are essays out there exploring more of why this character and his death affected so many, but I think that speech of his touched a nerve. Perhaps most of us will pass without having made any major impact on history or broader life, but perhaps we want to know that we mattered more than passingly to those we loved.

Memory does endure, though, especially if any of the exhbitions and articles about Great War I’ve been exploring are any indication. Loss leaves a hole, and though it may stop bleeding and may heal over with a scar, there will often be that mark, that absence of a person who should have been there, a hole in the fabric of broader lives… and I’m getting too philosophical maybe, after an afternoon spent at the Imperial War Museum, but anyway. A human response to the loss of a single fictional character is a sort of dress rehearsal for other losses, and none of those lost are blips. They always leave spaces in personal histories and individual hearts.

After reflecting on death and loss and people both real and invented, I spent part of the next day at Cardiff Castle. With BBC Wales based in Cardiff, it’s no wonder that the Castle is used as a location in many shows shot here – including two of my favourites, Dr Who and Sherlock.The Castle even offers a film location tour on this aspect of the site.

IMG_6319Having said that, though, I wasn’t all squeeful about spotting TV locations around the castle, because I am separately a fan of castles in their own right. Castles are neat! Castles are filled with layers of history, and layers of imagination. Castles weren’t always used for fortification, or at least not only for fortification. They have pasts full of luxury and leisure as well as warlike stances and defensive bristling.

Cardiff Castle, for example, has roots down to the Roman era; it has a Norman keep. The main living quarters are all faux-medieval having been done up in the 19th Century as Gothic Revival; and in the 20th Century it was opened to locals as a bomb shelter during WWII.

attack beaversElements of the Gothic Revival decorations entertained me the most, though. Oh, our Victorian era brethren, how you loved to make stuff up and then pass it off as tradition! You sure made a mess for the lovers of historical accuracy, but as a storyteller, I can’t help but to think you delightful for your crazy. (Speaking of which, I love the Attack Beavers depicted on the rooftop water fountain. They look like their fish are loaded and they are not afraid to use ’em.)

Discussing this with Tim, we wondered whether that Victoria habit of making up ‘traditional’ legends and traditions was a reaction to industrialisation; and whether our modern habit of being all retro hip with 19th Century hipster beards and 1950s Betty Page hair-dos and cupcakes is a similar treasure-the-past reaction to contemporary anxiety about constant connectivity, climate change and fear of surveillance through the smart devices to which we are so addicted.

IMG_6309Or, you know, maybe we just think the hair is cool.

Finally, I leave y
ou with a giant and rather cranky owl who squawked a lot and glared with his giant golden eyes because he wanted his dinner RIGHT NOW. He was like a giant feathered cat.

The castle falconer had a number of birds out for us to see. The white barn owl made me think of Hedwig (and that always makes me weepy) and there was a tiny wee owl called Pocket who of course made me think of the Weasley’s owl, Errol, only Pocket was more sprightly and even cuter.

So. Cardiff. A fangirl’s delight. I recommend it.

Thank you to Visit Britain and Visit Wales for hosting us.

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.