REVIEW: Richard III, Trafalgar Studios ✭✭✭✭

Richard III - Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil - Photo Marc Brenner
Richard III – Martin Freeman and Lauren O’Neil – Photo Marc Brenner

Richard III
Trafalgar Studios
8 August 2014
4 Stars

The floor is a worn chessboard, the large black and white squares dull from use. Everything about the furniture, the long lacquered benches with name plates and microphone stations, the harsh lighting, the pond-slime green office chairs, the elevators, the old style telephones, evokes that time before Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain, before the excesses of the 80’s and 90’s set in. The air is charged with political energy that seems naturally to engulf the space; it’s like some dystopian fusion of a United Nations Assembly room and the bunker from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Slightly chilling, possibly comical, reeking with power and intrigue.

In one corner, off to the right, on a bench, sits a lone figure; a woman, who might be a ghost of Power Past but who, superficially, at least looks somewhat like an aged Mrs Thatcher, her hair that way, her handbag clutched. She waits and ponders. Waiting. Silent. Like a spider waiting for a fly to be caught in her web.

So begins Jamie Lloyd’s absorbing revival of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s History plays, now playing at the Trafalgar Studios. It’s a multi-faceted text; high on Machiavellian political intrigue but equally a comedy, albeit a dark, sometimes Grand Guignol, one. Lloyd understands his text well and provides a reading which is in turns chilling and funny, which tells the complicated story with unerring clarity and which allows a first-rate cast to each glisten when their time comes.

This production is infinitely better than the overblown Old Vic Kevin Spacey one and at least as good as, if not better because of the superiority of the casting overall, than the rightly lauded Mark Rylance/Samuel Barnett version the Globe took to the West End and Broadway. If you want to understand the story and the motivations and drive of each of Shakespeare’s characters, then see this production.

Ever since Laurence Olivier shattered preconceptions about Richard III and placed a near indelible mark upon it as a true star vehicle, actors have sought to find their own way to shine in the role. Lloyd eschews that approach, rightly, with his star – Martin Freeman. The key to Freeman’s portrayal lies in one of Queen Margaret’s lines:

Thou elvish marked, abortive, rooting hog.

Where others have hinged interpretations on different phrases ( “poisonous bunch-backed toad”, “that bottled spider”, “That dogs bark at me as I halt by them”), here the notion of the rampaging feral, rutting boar takes precedence. It’s a recurring image in the play – Hastings says in Act 3 that “Stanley did dream the boar did rouse our helms” – and one which permits a character full of lust, for flesh and power, an unerring nose for detecting the truffles of power and sweeping away the obstacles that bar the way to them, a single-minded, calculating coldness and a complete indifference to anyone else.

Small in stature, bearded, one arm limp and useless, a small hunched back, Freeman’s feral pig Richard is wholly original, full of vinegar and chiselled, self-aware humour. He finds all of the political nuance of the role and wallows in the intemperate violence and gratuitous offence. His one-handed strangulation of Lady Anne is extraordinary to watch. So too his deathly silence as his royal nephew capers around imitating him, squealing like a pig; his vicious exchanges with Queen Margaret; his skilful manipulation of Buckingham; the razor sharp exchange with Elizabeth over the hand of her daughter; the final, frenzied, blood-soaked image of him on the battlefield, crazed and overwhelmed, but still looking for a chance, and then hurling himself towards Richmond in an unrestrained last hurrah, knife in hand, making a bravura comic moment from “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” The gunshot that finally silences him is brutal and startling.

Freeman breaks the fourth wall often, winking, nodding and conspiratorially including the audience in his thinking, underlining his jokes, seeking and gaining reassurance that the audience understands him and follows him. It’s very cleverly done, this silent rapport with the audience; it’s a trait unique to Richard in the production so it simultaneously alienates Richard from the rest of the cast and binds him to the audience, despite his atrocities. Very clever.

But Freeman’s cleverest moment comes in the scene where he refuses, then finally accepts, the crown. Without warning, the lights in the auditorium come up and the audience becomes part of the action, the crowd before whom the scene plays out, the ones Richard wants/needs to accept him. Freeman enters, everything about his physical challenges exaggerated – he plays them up for the crowd, like a true politician, thinking to make his prospects better. It works in a simple and stunning way – to emphasise both his “abortive” mortal form and his unceasing intelligent understanding of his world.

But the best aspect of Freeman is that he does not treat the play as his own. He works as part of an ensemble, one of a team telling the tale. This is not a star vehicle; it’s a skilled rendering of a difficult text, where every player gets their move and shines when they do.

Jo Stone-Fewing is outstanding as Buckingham, a triumph of self-absorbed, smarmy, self-importance. He looks like a mild mannered character from a sitcom, which simply underlines his political gravitas and the very real threat he poses to his opponents. His rich, resonant voice makes the material glow. Maggie Steed is broken, haranguing and wistful as the ousted Queen Margaret; part demonic witch, part symbol of Thatcher, part heartbroken mother and wife, she is a constant presence. She drinks cups of tea while Richard burns, rather in the mould of Nero and Rome.

In Gina McKee’s hands, Queen Elizabeth is a deadly political creature. Her gravelly voice suits the role admirably and she gives as good as she gets from both Freeman and Steed. The look of unremitting horror as she waits for Richard to kiss her is skin-crawling. Gerald Kyd is very impressive as Richard’s right-hand man, Catesby, all gritted-teeth complicity and brutal indifference; a true psychopath.

Mark Meadows makes more of Clarence than many have and his death (drowned in a fish tank) is awful to endure. Gabrielle Lloyd (Duchess of York, she has the trace of the Windsor women about her) is wonderful in the speech where she turns on Richard, her son – the pain and disappointment she exudes is palpable. Lauren O’Neil is an excellent Lady Anne, her disgust and fear of Richard perfectly conveyed. She dies magnificently, fighting Richard for every chance at survival; and before that, she has a moment of haunting beauty when she realises that he will kill her. A quiet, devastatingly effective piece of acting.

Joshua Lacey imbues Rivers with a feisty, unique spirit and the scenes where he is tortured and executed are riven with pain. Paul Leonard makes Hastings stern, sombre and sincere; Simon Coombs enjoys the murderous appetite of Tyrrel and you can almost feel the blood soaked into his skin from those he has slain; Philip Cumbis is regal and honest as Richmond, his final speech concluding the play with beauty and confidence.

Everyone in the cast is good – and that makes this an unusual production of Richard III and one to be admired on that ground alone.

Soutra Gilmour provides the evocative set, which, though cluttered with props, provides a very stark and crystal clear environment for the action to work in. There is great lighting from Charles Balfour – an especial treat is the scene towards the end of the play when Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Genuinely chilling. The sound and mood music from Ben and Max Ringham fits the set and performances like a glove, and further tease out complexity and resonance.

Lloyd has cut the play in interesting ways, removed characters, re-assigned lines; the final scenes, Richard in one camp, Richmond in another, are cut and juxtaposed, so the effect is like a documentary charting developments, and the tension rises as the stakes get higher. It all helps the narrative be effective and comprehensible for modern audiences.

From the outset, Lloyd’s production grabs attention and holds it. It is never dull or pointless; everything is purposeful and adds to the coherent overall vision. It’s a tale of a bitter, vindictive man desperate to take and hold power at any cost. Shakespeare wrote a timeless tale about greed, power and lust, one that speaks as loudly today as it did circa 1594. Anyone who doubts Shakespeare’s relevance as a dramatist today need only see this production to be reassured.

There are Richards everywhere in the modern world: running banks, controlling corporate forces, waging wars, oppressing minorities. There is one currently running Australia.

Shakespeare’s vision and insight into the psychology of schizophrenic megalomania was never more potent than it is in Richard III. Jamie Lloyd’s production demonstrates that with clarity and feeling.


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