BWW Reviews: RICHARD III, Trafalgar Studios, July 2014

Tony Cross

All the talk about this Richard III will be about Martin Freeman. It's unavoidable really. Well-known television star takes on one of the big Shakespearean roles and a role outside what might be seen as his comfort zone. Any review therefore will need to confront this head on.

So let's get this out of the way quickly. Freeman's good. He's certainly not overwhelmed by the part, even if he's such a familiar face which occasionally makes a particular expression or gesture seem un-Richard like. He handles the wooing of Anne, over her husband's bloody corpse, well and also handles the nastier, seamier, darker Richard well too. What is missing though is a certain poetry. It isn't just Freeman that's guilty of this, though.

There's also a lack of the conspiratorial Richard: the man who makes the audience an accomplice in his machinations, which is what makes Richard one of Shakespeare's most beguiling creations in my opinion. It is missing from the start when the decision was made to have Richard deliver the 'Winter of Discontent' speech as a speech before switching to something more conspiratorial. It's an odd way to do it, but it is one of the few wrong notes in Jamie Lloyd's direction.

And this is director-driven Shakespeare. The decision to set this Richard III in an alternate late-70s, early 80s England and to give the actors such a small space to act in drives the whole production. This is the second Jamie Lloyd Shakespeare I've seen, after the fine James McAvoy Macbeth, and there's a certain similarity in the way Lloyd uses sound and light to evoke an atmosphere, especially in the action scenes.

The Trafalgar is such a small space and all the furniture on stage narrows the space for the actors to perform in even further and yet the final moments of the play are fantastically directed and acted: the two armies waiting for the night to end and battle to begin, the dead come back to confront Richard both in his dreams and on the battlefield before Richard III meets his end. The modern-ish dress means that the famous 'my horse' moment is rendered a little odd but Freeman plays it well (and probably the only way he could without ruining it).

It's also a cut-down and re-shuffled Richard III. At two and a half hours, including interval, this is a Richard III stripped of its fat, which means key scene piles on key scene. It's remorseless and bloody and dark. Clarence's death is superbly played.

Whilst this might be director-driven rather than lead actor-driven all the parts are well acted. Freeman is in good company. Maggie Steed is a scary presence whose curses she gets to see come to fruition haunting the stage like the cold spirit of revenge. Gina McKee's Queen Elizabeth and Lauren O'Neil's Lady Anne are fantastic as the women who suffer most at the hands of Richard, although the latter's demise is rather excessive and unnecessary - like Sam Mendes's decision to have Lear beat the Fool to death in the recent National Theatre production of King Lear, it's over-egging a dramatic pudding.

Jo Stone-Fewing's Buckingham, Mark Meadow's Clarence, Joshua Lacey's Rivers and Forbes Masson's Hastings are all more than up to snuff; but I particularly liked Gerald Kyd's Catesby and Simon Coombs's Tyrrell who do good work in small parts.

In the end this is worth going to see: not because Martin Freeman particularly burns up the stage but because he's the solid centre of a well-directed and driven Richard III, which might sound like faint praise but isn't meant to be.

Richard III runs at the Trafalgar Studios.

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