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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