Richard III review

Review Louisa Mellor 10 Jul 2014 - 07:00

Richard III feat. Martin Freeman is a vigorous, brutal, and accessible retelling of Shakespeare’s tale of political villainy…

The world loves a bastard. Will it, though, love one whose legendary wickedness is played for laughs and not venom? Martin Freeman’s taut performance as Richard III in a new Trafalgar Studios production wrings cruel humour from the play’s every pun and pause. Freeman jerks his head, and the audience laughs. He raises his eyebrows, and we laugh. He commits murder, shrugs it off, and we laugh. Who knew fifteenth century crown politics could be such a riot?

Jamie Lloyd’s play sets Shakespeare’s lurid account of Richard III’s rapid ascent to “the supreme seat” against the backdrop of the 1979 English winter of discontent. The idea, apt pun aside, is to evoke political instability and bring to mind the behind-the-scenes machinations that unseat power.

Soutra Gilmour's set is a bunker decked out with avocado green furniture, slabs of Soviet-era technology, gas masks and spider-plants. Microphones and recording equipment are used to weave in ideas of public counterfeiting versus private conniving. Two lifts flank the set and announce each new arrival to the stage with a menacing buzz. The effect is deliberately claustrophobic, the small stage cluttered with furniture (not least banks of parliament-style benches packed with audience members) that becomes an obstacle course during the play’s fight scenes.

Of which there are many, and brutal all. We’re spared, thankfully, the Princes in the Tower being butchered, but not the blood-drenched assassin’s woeful report after the act. The audience jumps at gun shots and are shocked in and out of acts with sparking lighting and glitching music. We’re presented with a severed head heavy with dripping blood, a man being tortured to death, another drowned, a woman strangled... It’s brutal, visceral stuff, and when it isn’t, it’s very funny.

Jamie Lloyd’s vigorous production finds humour and horror in equal measure. When Shakespeare's stage directions call for “Richard, as king, upon his throne”, Freeman emerges from the gents in royal garb to the sound of a flushing toilet. Instructing a lackey to “strike up the drum”, he dances jerkily to the beat, goading his mother while she rues the day he was born.

Freeman isn’t the play’s only joker. Simon Coombs’ Tyrell glides around the stage like it’s a roller disco, Forbes Masson’s Hastings is hapless right up to his tragic end, and Jo Stone-Fewings’ hugely enjoyable kingmaker Buckingham alternates between slimy spin doctor (in private) and Baptist preacher (in public).

Only the women aren’t laughing, and for good reason. Mothers of murdered sons, Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess of York (Gina McKee, Maggie Steed and Gabrielle Lloyd, all captivating) deliver curses not punchlines in a play fuelled by female grief and male megalomania.

This dyspeptic Richard is a tightly wound creature, sparklingly intelligent and utterly amoral. Freeman scampers impatiently over the text, a taut, twitching coil of enjoyable disdain and horrid violence. Unlike previous incarnations, there’s little seductive or charming about his Richard III; he’s all brain and no heart, an empty vessel filling himself with arbitrary power. His character never flounders but stays several moves ahead of his opponents on the Trafalgar Studios’ chessboard floor. There’s nothing, and everything to like about this version of Shakespeare’s hunch-backed bogeyman for the Tudor age.

Some of the early audiences (as has been widely reported by the embargoed press looking for a Sherlock-related headline) may have arrived ready to love Freeman, and frankly, he gives them no reason not to. It’s a dynamic central performance inside a blackly comic approach to the play. Crucially, that approach is also an accessible, lively one for theatre newcomers and those more used to getting their thrills from TV and cinema screens. Freeman fans will be thrilled, and Richard III fans, once they’ve made their peace with the gags, should be too.

Richard III runs at the Trafalgar Studios until the 27th of September 2014.

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im glad its good, hoever im bored of the retelling of shakespears work in the modern era! yest go all medevil on these stories asses!

The whole notion of clapping or standing or cheering during a performance has slowly crept into society.

Personally, I blame Saturday night TV like X Factor, The Voice or one of those dancing ones.

No sooner has an act taken to the stage, the audience start to applaud right away. I have no idea why this has started, but it has.

When singers hit a high note, or a dancer does... well, a bit of dance, the audience clap and cheer. They are also given standing ovations like they just performed a miracle for the most average of performances, rendering standing ovations a pointless act.


Just watch, listen, and clap at the end, like normal human beings.

I didn't start cheering when Pete struck a Fmaj7 with The Libertines at Hyde Park on Saturday.

Although I did give them a standing ovation at the end.

Considering that the behaviour you object to was the norm until the Victorians decided to make everything boring, I have no idea why it stopped.

Probably because it was incredibly annoying and distracting for the people on stage.

Having worked as a stage manager in amateur dramatics and being good friends with many actors, I'd have to say that any actor who is distracted by the audience should not be an actor.

As someone who has never worked as a stage manager in amateur dramatics and is not friends with anyone who acts, I'd have to say.... touche.

Stuff needs to
change in order for it to stay relevant. The moment stuff doesn't
change, it stagnates.

Theater has been in a middle-class rut for the
past century.

The same people go and see the same play, clap at the
same time, and sigh, laugh and cry at the same time. Art is about
innovation, not stagnation.

I'm as working class as they come. Born and raised (no not in West Philadelphia) on the streets of Holloway, yet when I have been to the theater, i do not clap and cheer at the wrong time.

It's not a middle class thing, it's a good manners/appropriate thing.

I agree, things need to change and become relevant, but audience participation is not one of them.

Maybe next time I go see Les Mis, I'll start playing a Kanye West tune loudly on my phone so I don't have to hear Castle on a Cloud and to keep it current and relevant for a younger audience.

The Beeb (Arts & Entertainment News) referenced your article but noted that Den of Geek was a website "not usually given to reviewing Shakespeare." The Beeb (Arts & Entertainment News) referenced your article but noted that Den of Geek was a website "not usually given to reviewing Shakespeare." Did they not read the review on Dr Who and the Shakespeare Notebooks or James Clayton's column on Joss Whedon and Shakespeare? Sheesh. ;)

In my experience of theatre (and Shakespeare especially) which is fairly extensive since living both near Stratford, England and now near Stratford, Ontario, Canada, the applause during shows can happen at times other than the interval and the end of the play, and completely appropriately.

Usually this happens when something particularly comedic and clever occurs in the play and is performed particularly well. A short pause for some applause at a particular job well done within the play itself is good for the soul both of the players and the audience I think.

It's also something that happens when, heaven forbid, someone fluffs their lines or their cues, and covers it with some smart gesture or one-liner that is off script. A small wave of applause shows appreciation for the humour of the moment and the actors clever response in the face of adversity, and I find is most welcome in those situations.

One such point in a recent performance of "Midsummer Nights Dream" here in sunny Canada, had one of the actors in a particularly compromising and difficult pose, requiring him to be still for some considerable time, and doubtless a strain on his body. Another actor who was part of this interaction, off script, commented to the poor guy "So, how are your abs?!", which was met with laughter and a ripple of applause. It certainly didn't ruin the enjoyment of the play and if anything actually enhanced it.

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