Reviews: Martin Freeman in Richard III

Published On October 30, 2014 | By James Bacon | Film TV & Theatre

Richard III
The Studio Theatre Trafalgar, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

This theatre is modern in style. Comfortable seats rise directly from the stage itself, giving a closeness that is unusual, while intimacy of the space is increased with five rows of seating at the back of the stage. Side stages in the wings allow another set of parts to be played close to different sets of the audience.

One gets an immediate sense of place and time. Here is an open plan office of the late 60s or early 70s. An executive office space during wartime, two long heavy wooden desks suitable for three people perpendicular to the audience, place names which also mean counties. The chairs have a green material, the machinery of office: real type writers on the cusp of going electric, but not yet, reel to reel recording devices, wooden cased televisions, the fluorescent strip lights, phones with dials, it is an amazingly well-crafted set.

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The wood contrasts with the stainless steel of the lifts, and the large square black and white floor tiles, while a roof skylight gives an angular feel and indicating this space is near the top, the ninth floor perhaps as indicated by the lifts.

As the audience files in, an older lady, Queen Margaret, comes in and sits on a waiting couch, upright, tweed suit, vodka bottle and handbag, dejectedly quiet.

Thunderous drumming, explosions, the TVs on and a coarser sounding version of God Save the King, all announcing the entry, and so the cast walk onstage, all in black gas masks, a sombreness and menace that ceases with removal of masks and cheering and rejoicing, for the war is won. The characters wear a mixture of suits and British military uniform. If a sense of timing was needed, the SLR rifle, the woolley pulley jumpers, the green combat trousers all say early 70s.

Martin Freeman of course must start the play, and so the stage darkens suddenly, a green blackish hue freezes everyone motionless, and they freeze oh so well, and he enters into his speech. He carries it off brilliantly. He is fully bearded here, and this improves his royal look, his stoop, walk and useless arm, all carried off brilliantly, and straight away he is earning his keep.

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When we return, one can take in the incredible details, the music in the lifts, the uniforms of the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Stanley, Clarence and the king all look perfect. The king’s a little different with riding breeches and high boots, but all are looking immaculate with Sam Brown belts of No 2 uniforms. These uniformed men are juxtaposed with Buckingham in a single breasted tight suit, his longish brushed back hair, and moustache, Richmond in a light brown three piece suit and dark brown polo neck shirt, Catesby with more bureaucratic look, also in a suit and Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth in fantastic dresses, tight, high-necked and respectable.

There is a diversity in the accents that the actors use. Rivers in a sky light blue suit and open shirt is from the north, Lady Anne sounds like she is from Liverpool, Tyrell has a Caribbean accent, all played well, and whether their natural voices, or put on, it is believably England.

Queen Margaret’s proper entry is accompanied by superb music and sparks and explosions and light failures, as she curses all, and they cower and run around the office keeping their distance, it is fabulous stuff. Maggie Steed is wonderful, and uses the stage to great effect.

There is a modernity and expedience here that allows the viewer to get closer to this production than most. Tyrell seems to use some white powder to help strengthen his resolve, and when it is explained to Clarence that ‘Your brother Gloucester hates you’, the words are spaced, slow on purpose, like sarcastically explaining it to a child, and it is hilarious. There is incredible action, Tyrell leaps across the desks that remain in situ.

The play though is grim in its portrayal of death. Richard III is a play full of killing, but here it is intimate and nasty, to a level of accuracy that astounded me, and left some, well, feeling unwell.

Clarence is drowned in a fish tank, and as he struggles, he is under for just too long. No one can hold their breath so long, and the audience start to realise it, the reaction ripples through, people are uneasy, uncomfortable, this is very close, and then as Tyrell and Catesby relax in pleasure at their achievement, standing back from the dead body, the head still submerged, a coup de grace is given as Catesby takes out a small blade and quickly ensures the job is done with a cut to the neck, blood pumping out into the fish tank.

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And so a person exits the audience. This is theatre on the edge, and one person has decided, for their own reasons, to exit promptly.

Of course this is wondrous stage design. There must be a breathing apparatus in the murky water of the tank, but this is also movie level effects.

The lift music is excellent, and there is a lounge, tinny background music as the king tries to bring all parties to peace over tea and sandwiches. The timing is beautiful, Rivers slurping his tea at the perfect moment during Richard’s speech.

Freeman commands this stage, as do the other actors. He is incredible here. This is the nice Watson of Sherlock fame, this is not The Office he is used to, he is normally meek and quiet, the put upon character, be it Arthur Dent or Tim Canterbury.

Yet here he is the villain. Waiting as Lady Anne talks about him, in the shadows, but acting out listening, just as superb as his engagement with her, his beard and composure and comportment adding something that makes this a special version of this play. One viewer commented to me that she had to remind herself that this was not Kenneth Branagh, she was so taken with his acting.

I was too. For this is indeed a villain, but humour in this play is required. The audience must laugh, and I admit I was worried there might be pointless applause of gushing laughter due to his fame, yet my concerns were ill founded. There was no vacuous laughter here.

Freeman portrayed Richard brilliantly, head movements, his intonation, pauses all perfect, creating the laughter of Richard, endearing and charming as a character who is also a child murderer can be. The malice of Richard III wrapped up in humour and eloquent subtlety is enhanced by smart writing, but it was the look of Freeman, his turns, his silence which seals the fate of laughter, and so the audience laughs, just when they should.

There is a violence about everything, when Richard wants to speak to Queen Elizabeth she is accosted, held and duct taped screaming to a chair. It is uncomfortable, and horrible.

Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth was fabulous, as were the two princes, I liked them both, different and full of childish life, yet clever and born to be royalty. It was brilliant when the younger prince came onstage on a space hopper, sandals and shorts and sleeveless jumper, perfect.

The confidence of all the actors is present, they are comfortable on the stage, easily moving pieces, removing a misplaced space hopper, or paper fallen. Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham, Gerald Kyd as Catesby, Simon Coombs as Tyrell really impressed me.

Lauren O’Neil as Lady Anne, the widow of the prince that Richard slayed, who he then woos, plays this part brilliantly. Again it is the direction, but she plays a much better part than usual, not just in the main scene with Richard, but also she is on stage when he announces that it is to be put about that she is unwell. Her murder is usually something that happens off stage, but her, she is aghast, in the realisation, but worse is to come.

Freeman murders her with a fervour that is shocking and upsetting.

With his one hand he tries to strangle her and the fight is fearsome, he is both enjoying the moment and struggling with his weakness. The noises from him are beastly, heavy breathing and grunting, rising in an orgasmic style, like a man engaging in intercourse, he enjoys this death in a dreadful sort of way, his acting only confirming the pleasure, and then the little shrug of carelessness.

The grimness never leaves, be it the death of Rivers, screaming with lights on his face, a sensation of torture in the air, and then a slow and horrible death by injection, or when Hastings’s blood-covered head is removed from a bin bag in a cardboard box. It is not the effect or the blood that makes one wince, it is the sloppy heavy sound it makes as it is dropped back into the box, Tyrell covered in blood when he reports the princes slain.

Grimness and laughter. The audience laughing as Richard walks in with an old cassette recover playing holy music, a huge device by today’s standards, the audience fully lit so that Richard can address them, as the citizens, the engagement with Buckingham brilliant.

I loved the costumes, and when Richard arrives in a red jacket, I try and spot the medals, and wonder what would adorn his jacket. He is forthright in his language, again ensuring the audience does not get lost in the complexity of the play. No one misses what he means when he says, ‘he wishes the bastards dead’.

The final scenes are wonderful. Some adjustment occurs, so that Ricardo is visited by some of those he has slain, including the princes sporting boar head masks covered in blood. A surprise is held for some that he has killed.

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The red jacket is swapped for green smock and combat trousers, while Richmond’s men sport balaclavas, slightly more sinister than one expects, yet this is part of the added story.

The audience gasps at the right moments, more people leave, some just for fresh air, to return at the interval with cups of water, and colour returned. This is connecting with an audience, who laughs and likes a murderer, and I secretly think it must be a little more with such a likeable chap as Freeman.

Yet it is not gratuitously gruesome. It is actually terribly clever and makes everything much more real. The final gunshot startling the audience with its noise and suddenness, the blood from the melee splattering across the stage, deathly cuts spurting blood in a believable way.

I loved it, I just loved the experience, it felt fabulous. I have seen Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, and I have to say, this performance beat them both. I have seen David Tennant as Richard III and I thought that he was just a little too much Tennant.

Freeman though, he can do anything. He radiates malice and is sinister in his humour.

I feel that the changes, the subtle adjustments, the real perspective given, and the setting all contributed to making this, to date, the best Richard III I have seen so far. It is the direction, for sure, Lloyd must be cheered and jubilated, but Freeman, McGee, O’Neil, Steed, Coombs, Stone Fewings and Kyd, just all do such an incredible job.

Jamie Lloyd’s great adjustments and direction added to the stage design of Soutra Gilmour, warrant appreciation. There was a dynamism to the set, stage and costuming that really helped.

This is great Shakespeare. The story is the same, and the changes are smart moves that improve it, while it was obvious that the majority of those enjoyed this play a lot as they stood and applauded.

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About The Author

James Bacon
James Bacon is a train Driver working in London but originally from Dublin. He also loves comics, theatre, history and books, runs conventions, writes about these activities and has edited a Hugo-winning Fanzine.

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