by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Trafalgar Studios, London
Saturday 12th July 2014
Starring Martin Freeman as Richard III
Martin Freeman – Richard III
Jo Stone-Fewings – Buckingham
Forbes Masson – Hastings
Lauren O’Neil – Lady Anne
Gina McKee – Queen Elizabeth
Maggie Steed – Queen Margaret
Gabrielle Lloyd – Duchess of York
Simon Coombs – Tyrell
Gerard Kyd – Catesby
Mark Meadows – Clarence / Lord Mayor
Philip Cumbus -Richmond
Joshua Lacey- Rivers
Paul McEwan – King Edward IV / Bishop of Ely
Vinta Morgan – Edward of Lancaster / Ensemble
Madeleine Harland – Ensemble
Julie Jupp- Ensemble
It’s getting bloody silly, the amount of gore spattered in recent London productions. It’s said the Globe has tubes in the stage so actors can suck up and spit out a column of stage blood, which they do spectacularly. Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in 2013 was bloody, but the first reviews of this Richard III mentioned the front row being issued with ponchos to protect them from all the blood swashing about. I always feel the slasher variety of horror films are the pleasure of the jaded and dumb, who have not enough imagination to feel tension without lashings of gore. But the front rows were not issued with ponchos or T-shirts this evening. There was no warning notice in the theatre, and who reads reviews?
In part 2, there is a stab to the neck and a fountain of blood goes right up in the air. At the end, I watched the bespattered patrons. A man had a white shirt and white trousers. Covered. He had to go home on the tube. A lady had it all down the back of a lace covered dress. Say she was in London for a few days and had brought one dress for evenings? People were covered in blood in the FOURTH ROW, and only a couple of metres from us. Someone else was saying they had booked to have dinner afterwards. It is grossly irresponsible, teenage dumb and a very nasty thing to do. It is gross sensationalism for two seconds of action. The column of blood could just as easily have been done centre stage, if you really have to, with exactly the same effect and hit no one. The over-priced seats for this cost nearly double the going rate for the West End … we saw “Shakespeare in Love” with a much bigger cast, live music too, for half the price the same day in more comfortable seats. Maybe Jamie Lloyd sees himself as Robin Hood robbing one audience to subsidize his cheap Mondays. If there were an authority that could close productions, they should close this one with regard to audience safety until that blood effect is removed. The theatre management must surely be waiting for some lawyer in a £2000 suit and £100 silk tie to sue them. I would not attend another production directed by Jamie Lloyd. That’s how strongly I felt about his contempt for my fellow theatre goers. And if you look at my review of his 2012 School For Scandal at Bath, I thought the direction brilliant … and unflashy.
This is Richard III – The Graphic Novel, except that in a graphic novel, the pictures change. This has one location., and only the two dimensions of the comic book splashed with red. Lloyd’s Macbeth was set in a post-independence Scottish dystopia. This one is set in the 1970s, in a post-coup England facing … with overt circularity “the winter of discontent” so taking a Shakespeare quote and pulling the play four hundred years forward to fit a quote from it that became a tired journalistic cliche. I don’t think cliche disturbs this director. This is a Britain after a military coup, a coup which Harold Wilson used to mutter darkly about as a possibility. The potential Wilson era coup is explained as if solid “fact” in the programme. That was in the sixties, and some believed Lord Mountbatten would be shoehorned in as a figurehead. File under “urban legend” and “Prime Ministers: paranoid”? My generation owes a great deal to Harold Wilson, in that he declined to get involved in the Vietnam war in spite of American pressure and “Domino theory” generals in the War Office. In retrospect, I like Harold. Maybe he was right about the coup. But it’s not “fact.” That coup fantasy may well have been discussed over pink gin in the secret services, but it never got anywhere near reality. But then again this whole Wilson / Conspiracy / Mountbatten / Duke of Gloucester construct only exists if you read the programme notes or advance publicity. You wouldn’t pick it up without the explanation. Basically, it’s just yet another 20th century fascist state/ politician intrigue Shakespeare. God knows, there have been more than enough of them.
In this production, the military intervention has left a power vacuum into which the “Duke of Gloucester” steps. Freeman is wearing the sort of George V beard favoured by the Gloucesters and Kents in the 20th century. So we’re in high-concept Shakespeare, and it always remains to see how much the director pulls and squeezes the play to the concept, and how much the play just happens to fit the concept. Richard III has enugh layers of political machination without adding a further layer.
The set is a political committee room. There are two long rows of desks facing each other, used for showing opposite factions as at a conference. Or in an office … hang on, Martin Freeman … The Office. The two long rows of desk with other desks also filling the sides, confine the actors to narrow gangways, or trap the actors between the rows, except for one dramatic piece where Freeman leaps monkey-like across them. His best bit. There are three or four 70s televisions (which are used for video). The cast use microphones quite often.
There were early complaints that Hobbit and Sherlock fans were getting over-excited and applauding Freeman too much and too often. The Tolkien effect aided Richard Armitage’s massive applause (well-deserved) in The Crucible last week, but that all came at the end. A dozen years ago, Sean Bean in Macbeth elicited Beatlesque screams from the audience. We spoke to two Spanish lads who had come to London purely to see Freeman and Armitage on stage. The Trafalgar Studios concept under Lloyd was to reserve seats for schools and first-time theatergoers, with cheap Monday seats too. That’s laudable and it’s snotty to moan about enthusiasm. I have seen an elderly Bath audience applaud Penelope Keith before she opened her mouth. However, in reality, I see the Trafalgar Studios publicity department at work, because Freeman did not get any extraneous applause on this Saturday night until the encores. Not a sign of this “poor theatre etiquette” which I suspect is imaginary or rather advertising. The programme notes by Jamie Lloyd made me shudder at the degree of patronizing: “Many of you may not have been to the theatre before, let alone seen one of Shakespeare’s plays.” There are only two words for such patronizing twaddle, and the second one is “off.” I’d add “and after seeing a play directed by me, many of you may not bother to go again.” From the patronizing note, I guess Lloyd believes only slasher horror bloodfests will bring in the Yoof audience. By which, I suppose he means the boys who like comic books. Think on. Movement, music, drama, dance sections, costume, spectacle, emotional depth, respect for the story all appeal too. None of them were used here. The emotional range is from vicious and vengeful to vengeful and vicious.
Some reviews thought Freeman “understated” but that’s his trademark. He was understated as Tim in The Office, as Dr Watson and understated as Rembrandt. Sinister people don’t have to rant and rave, and surely Richard III was sinster because he was sinuous. Freeman does a lot of gurning and grimacing aside, much of it is funny. Freeman is an actor of enormous ability, but I found his Richard one-dimensional. The character he creates has nowhere near the appeal of Kevin Spacey or Jonjo O’Neill or Mark Rylance, the three recent Richards I’ve seen. Freeman is the main appeal of the play, but we know he’s a conniving nasty bastard from the outset. He lacks gravitas, coming across in his blue-suited sections as a spiv with a grudge. I felt he was acting “at” people, not “with” people. There is zero erotic charge in the scene with Anne for instance. The other three Richards mentioned all managed to convey some of the oily charm that deceived the people around them, even if temporarily. No one would have trusted this one. Also we normally travel on a journey with Richard, who dissembles and smiles early on, and gradually lets his out and out violence come to the surface. This cast go flat out and rant and rave their way through the script at high speed. I disliked the concept, thought the set far, far too confining of action and highly derivative (though more of Hamlets and Macbeths), the direction clichéd and static.
And a word for the poor goldfish. Clarence is murdered in a goldfish tank which then fills with blood. Those appear to be live fish … you can get electric ones. Would you like your face submerged in a fish tank? OK, they’re goldfish but it must be distressing for them too. On disregard for actors, Queen Margaret has to lie on the stage, legs exposed, in a petticoat for a long time. Why? So contempt for the audience, contempt for the cast.
Positives? The recorded drumming during the “battle” was extremely effective as a display of drumming ability, as was the play out music. Lord Rivers first appearance and Geordie accent was impressive and his pale blue suit was eye catching (Joshua Lacey). The murder of Anne by Richard with a telephone cord was one of the nastiest stage murders I’ve seen, and Lauren O’Neil’s physical acting in it was brilliant. I’m not sure that means it was a good thing to have done though.
The lift door opening and closing during a murder was effective. It was a nice touch for Richard’s first appearance as king at the start of the second half to be emerging from the bog. i.e. loo. The TV broadcast by Richmond at the end, indicating that he was a manipulator too, was not new by any means, but Philip Cumbus delivered it extremely well. It wasn’t written to show that aspect at all, as Shakespeare couldn’t slag off the Queen’s grandad, and the cue for this was surely taken from the ending of the National Theatre “West Wing” Hamlet where Fortinbras does much the same to a camera. With Fortinbras it fitted the story.
Paul McEwan’s dying Edward IV suddenly breaking into rage was fine acting. I’m trying hard for the rest. The Duke of Buckingham did his exhortation to make Richard king through a microphone. Seen that before too. No, I can’t find anything that stood out. The best bits were mainly lifted from other productions.
I hate giving bad reviews. But I also know the kind of director who will see upset audiences and bad reviews as an accolade to their Great Art. Charles Spencer in The Telegraph said: This, however, is Director’s Theatre at its self-advertising worst. And after an astute review gave it two stars.
The vast majority of my reviews range from positive to very positive. My verdict on this one: no stars, for utter contempt for the audience. It’s not just that. Before I saw how badly blood-spattered people were as we walked out, I was running at two stars, and both of those were earned by Martin Freeman on his own. But then I have to remove one for costume. What, battledress and balaclavas for the battle? No! Not again! Crimplene for the women? Nothing I hadn’t seen in other fascist state dystopian Shakespeares. All the other Richard III’s reviewed on this blog were considerably better than this one. At two and a half hours including interval, it’s short … its main virtue, but also confused. Let’s follow Hobbes and say it was “nasty, brutish and short.” The way it’s set up gives none of the women a chance to shine. In most productions the women are important. Not here, though they’re all accomplished actors. Those “first time theatregoers” Lloyd cherishes would not believe that in other productions, Richard damn near persuades Anne in their first big scene.
If you go (and I really wouldn’t advise it) wear very old clothes made of nylon.
Having seen two plays at Chichester since this (Amadeus, Miss Julie), you can slit a throat with massive effect without cretinous spraying the audience with blood.
Speculative. Lloyd’s notes actually annoying.
Quite a bit. The pipe, even five rows back, was extremely unpleasant. It was all gratuitous, but nothing compared to the gratuitous blood.
Absurdly over-heated and stuffy on a hot evening. Dreadful toilets. In the Gents, three urinals with elbow room would be better than four urinals with arms pressing you tight on both sides. I’m told the ladies were worse (no room to turn round) and the queue was phenomenal.
AFTERWORD ON CASTING (2016)
Didn’t they do well? I’m amazed at how many 2016 links from casts in major productions go back to this play. The casting director spotted talent.
Richard III – Almeida, Ralph Fiennes as Richard III