Richard III (Trafalgar Studios), review

The ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season of plays aimed at an audience who knows little about theatre has been the brainchild of director Jamie Lloyd over at the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre), and at £54 a ticket and £4.50 a programme it isn’t a cheap excursion.

This time around ‘Richard III’ is played by Martin Freeman, who is currently in the ascendant after playing Dr Watson in the ‘Sherlock’ reboot and Bilbo Baggins in the film franchise ‘The Hobbit’.  His appeal has always been a bit of a mystery to me, although as Watson he is a lot better than I would have expected having only seen him before as Tim in ‘The Office’ and in the poor-quality TV sitcom, ‘Hardware’.

It seems a little like stunt casting, but after seeing Richard Armitage in ‘The Crucible’ recently I was prepared to give Freeman the benefit of the doubt.  Richard III is one of the great theatre roles and one of the strongest Shakespeare leads, and many actors have made the part their own (notably Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, and my particular favourite, Ian McKellen).

The theatre programme’s introduction informs us that we are probably not used to attending theatre performances, are unlikely to know much about history, and are likely to be strangers to Shakespeare (which might explain why he gets a writer’s bio under the list of creatives).  This isn’t actually true (or isn’t for me, anyway), but if that’s the assumption, perhaps it explains why this muddled production tries to move the War of the Roses and Richard’s court into the late 1970s (the ‘Winter of Discontent’) and brings in all manner of political intrigues from that time as well of those of the last years of the Plantagenets.

The set is a simple one, two tables facing each other with seating, microphones, old televisions, reel-to-reel tape recorders, a lift, a couple of old-style telephones, and harsh fluorescent lighting.  King Edward IV is a sickly man with an oxygen cylinder and mask ready for his periods of lack of breath, while the yes men of the court (Catesby, Ely, Buckingham – well-played as an oily spin-doctor by Jo Stone-Fewings) have identikit glasses and moustaches which unfortunately brought to mind the Monty Python ‘Whicker Island’ sketch but I assume was meant to convey that these men were without independent thought and instead were bland sycophants who blindly followed the seat of power.

Before the play started, we saw Queen Margaret, whose husband and son had been slaughtered in the conflict and coup which brought Edward to power, grieving just to the side of the main action, with a portrait of her late husband obliterated by a bloody cross.  Maggie Steed plays Margaret but she seems to belong in another play – initially resembling Mrs Thatcher with coiffed hair and handbag, she becomes more dishevelled as the play progresses and she learns to curse.

Edward’s Queen is played by Gina McKee, an actor I can sometimes see as overplaying, but here she moves from arrogant steel to distraught bereavement with some style – she has good scenes with both Steed’s Margaret and Freeman’s Richard, especially when she is bound to a chair to hear a twisted proposal of marriage between her daughter Elizabeth and recently widowed Richard, a proposal which might restore her to riches and power.  The conflict between her need for such power and her hatred for the ‘bunch-backed toad’ who murdered her sons is powerful.

The central performance, though, is lacking.  Martin Freeman’s Richard has been described by some reviewers as ‘terrifying’ but I disliked his comedic seeking for laughs in lines which should have the ability to score emotional points or chill the audience.  The ‘my kingdom for a horse’ line was thrown away, and many lines and reactions were accompanied by expressions intended to bring laughter from those watching – and when we laugh, we’re not convince by this man.  The scene where Hastings is accused of being a traitor and sent for execution is usually one of the highlights of the play, and shows the ruthlessness of a man seeking the ultimate seat of power, the ruthlessness that will dispatch his friends and relations if he perceives they stand in the way.  Here it simply does not convince, and the appearance shortly afterwards of Hasting’s head in a box, dripping gore, seems unnecessary.

Much has been made of the gory focus of this play – and there is one sequence where an audience member in row C just in front of us did get spattered with blood – but despite many deaths being shown on stage (Clarence drowned in a fish tank rather than the traditional butt of wine – another scene where the emotional point is missed as his big speech feels rushed; Rivers being injected with something which causes him to fit and die; Queen Anne being strangled with a telephone wire by a Richard who sees a better marriage alliance elsewhere – a scene so protracted it loses energy very quickly; Buckingham quickly and cruelly dispatched by a Caseby he saw as a friend) it isn’t the blood-drenched spectacle you might expect.

The theatre also needs to sort out its air-conditioning and to relax their policy of not allowing patrons to cross the set to reach the second programme/ice-cream seller in the interval.  It feels as if the theatre is stating an aim to reach new audiences but in doing so, is determined to alienate a core audience who might simply look for comfort and convenience without being ripped off.  As for Freeman, it seems many people in the audience are simply fans of his rather than being attracted in any way by the play.