It has to be said that the last 12 months has been pretty awesome for amazing productions of various Shakespeare plays here in London. We have had Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, and David Tennant in Richard II at The Barbican.
The current hottest Shakespeare play in town right now is Richard III at The Trafalgar Studios which stars Sherlock’s Martin Freeman in the title role. The play is part of the highly successful Trafalgar Transformed season and Jamie Lloyd directs the play. Tickets have been highly sought after, and the theatre is full night after night. The play has been running since the beginning of July and closes on Saturday evening.
The play which tells the story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s journey to becoming Richard III is set in a dystopian version of Britain in 1979. This period of British history was known as “the winter of discontent” due to national strikes and the famous three day week. It is rather fitting for the play to set in this time bearing in mind that the play opens with the line “Now is the winter of our discontent”. The setting that Lloyd has chosen worked really well for the play, and the relatively simple stage setup of a war room adds an air of menace to the play and allows for some very clever choices to be made.
I will admit to being a bit of a Shakespeare snob, and I went into the performance feeling unsure what to expect from Freeman’s performance on stage. From the very second the company walked on stage to the sound of sirens and wearing gas masks, I was won over. Freeman commanded the attention of every person in the theatre and his delivery of the opening speech was just breathtaking. From that moment on I was hooked on Freeman’s Richard; he didn’t turn Richard into a pantomime villain which can sometimes happen with this play. Freeman was vicious, malevolent, and yet with moments such as sticking his tongue out at the people who dared to disagree with him just made this Duke of Gloucester truly human.
Although there is no argument that Freeman will have been the main reason for most people to see this play, however the entire company is incredibly strong. Jo Stone-Fewings played Buckingham as a political spin doctor and Richard’s yes man and his performance was nothing short of spectacular. This Buckingham is smarmy and manipulative to ensure that nothing or no one gets in the way of Richard’s march to the throne. The female stars of the play were all consistent scene stealers with Maggie Stead leading the way as Queen Margaret. She played the elderly Queen Margaret with a regal grace and yet she still manages to put the fear of God into everyone as she tells of what will happen in the future. Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth is another stand out performance, portraying the Queen’s fall from grace and favour with dignity and pride.
As an audience member it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on real political machinations. In a scene just prior to the interval Buckingham assembles group of citizens to convince Richard, Duke of Gloucester that it is his duty to become King Richard III, the audience are used as those citizens and Freeman and Stome-Fewings address the audience directly. It is a very clever conceit for Lloyd to use, and it negates the need for a large number of supporting actors.
There is no doubt that this is not a production for the weak stomached. It is unashamedly violent and bloody. In fact, if you sit in the first three rows you are given a cover up garment because there is the possibility of being covered in stage blood. In the original text, many of the deaths happen off stage but Lloyd made the choice to portray many of them on stage. In fact the death of Richard himself is in fact the least gory of them all. We see Clarence, drowned in a fish tank, and Lord Rivers death following being tortured is gruesome and lengthy. Even the deaths we see off stage do not escape the gore. Lord Hastings, who is played by the brilliant Forbes Masson, literally loses his head, and the proof of the successful beheading is possibly the most gory thing I have ever seen on stage. In spite of all this blood and gore, it didn’t ever feel that this was done purely for the sake of controversy, if anything it made it feel more authentic to the time period of the late 1970’s. This time in history was when dictators ruled in countries such as General Pinochet in Chile and Idi Amin in Uganda, and history has shown that these rulers thought nothing of dispatching their enemies in a violent and bloody manner.
The closing speeches when King Richard and Richmond, played by Philip Cumbus, are addressing their respective troops was cleverly staged to allow both men to be on stage at the same time. It felt like they were opposing generals in their war rooms. Another clever use of the time period was the way in which the closing speech from Richmond was staged as if he was the victorious leader in a coup broadcasting his victory to the country, it just made it feel all that more authentic to the time frame.
All in all, this was a wonderfully clever production of Richard III and Freeman is in the top three for my favourite portrayals of Richard himself. If he is not nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance then there is definitely something wrong.
Kirsty has been writing in secret ever since High School however has recently decided to share her ramblings with the world.When not writing about all things culture especially Doctor Who, Glee, Literature and Theatre especially musicals such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kinky Boots; she can be found working as a Personal Assistant and Administrator.
She spends way too much time on Twitter talking about all her favourite things , however as her father points out at least she is surrounded by friends!!Kirsty also enjoys travelling with the UK and wider afield.