Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Theatre review: Richard III (Trafalgar Studios)

Jamie Lloyd opens the second season of Trafalgar Underwhelmed Transformed like the first, with a big-name star in a popular Shakespeare play. Martin Freeman is Richard III in a production that takes its visual cue from the other famous Winter of Discontent, and sets the action in the late 1970s. In a drab Government office, Edward VI (Paul McEwan) has won - so far - the War of the Roses, but his health is rapidly failing. He has an heir, but his youngest brother Richard (Freeman) fancies the crown for himself. His plots quickly despatch middle brother Clarence (Mark Meadows) and with Edward's death he gets himself installed as Lord Protector over the underage prince. With a gift for manipulation, no qualms about bumping off half the court, and a number of supporters hoping to get a slice of power if he succeeds, he soon steps over his nephews to claim the throne himself.

Freeman seemed an eccentric choice for the role when it was first announced but Lloyd's instinct has proved right: The villain's disabilities have tended to make him a magnet for grandstanding performances but Freeman makes him a picture of casual, businesslike cruelty.

This is where the production is at its best, in eliciting the matter-of-factness of evil and hunger for power. Lloyd brings to the fore the black comedy elements of the play, Richard and the various lords exchanging polite jokes as they sign death warrants, and Freeman consciously bringing to mind his role in The Office as he looks to the audience with a "what am I like?" grin that belies the horrors he routinely commits. I particularly liked his restraint in portraying Richard's disabilities - he has a slight hunchback and a withered arm but barely limps, essentially dealing like a real person would, by overcoming his disabilities rather than being defined by them. It's only when he's currying favour with the public that he hams up the limp.

Around the central role though, the production is a lot shakier, despite a number of reliable hands among the supporting cast: Forbes Masson's Hastings has a self-consciously bumbling persona that won't save him, Jo Stone-Fewings' Buckingham is a suitably businesslike right-hand-man for Richard, and Philip Cumbus' Richmond is a more hands-on leader but not above using a bit of spin himself. But while I like a short running time, two and a half hours seems surprisingly brisk for Shakespeare's second longest play, and the storytelling turns out to be terribly muddy. The murder of the princes in the Tower doesn't really feel like a gear shift in public opinion against Richard, while the women get pretty short shrift in this production - Gina McKee doesn't get much time to make Queen Elizabeth come to life, Lauren O'Neil's Lady Anne is even more of a nonentity than usual, and Maggie Steed's Margaret is frequently inaudible1, even when she's not speaking directly into the floor.

And while "Transformed" is still in the season's name, Lloyd continues to forget about the onstage audience. At least the actors seem to engage with them a bit more this time, but there's numerous silent, ghostly appearances behind them, and a couple of scenes played out of their line of vision. And the huge amount of office furniture covering Soutra Gilmour's narrow stage means that the inventiveness with which Lloyd approaches the play's many murders is overshadowed by the awkwardness of the fight scenes, Kate Waters having to navigate the actors around rows of desks; only the final battle can really let rip with the promised bloodshed. Although small by West End standards in terms of (sore) bums on (uncomfortable) seats, Trafalgar Studio 1's stadium seating can mean intimacy is often a problem, and despite the back row being only a dozen people back from the stage this was definitely the case here, we felt very detached from the action. So despite a lead with a genuinely refreshing take on the character, Bilbo's Dick ends up feeling a remarkably cold, unengaging one.

Richard III by William Shakespeare is booking until the 27th of September at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

1in a piece of perfect comic timing, Christopher whispered "can you hear a word she's saying?" moments before Steed picked up a microphone to speak her curse into

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