I never expect much from the Telegraph.
When their theatre reviewer says that Martin Freeman playing Richard III is like “sending a boy to do a man’s work” they fail to reach even that lowly expectation. This was, in fact, a stunning performance of real power. This Richard III sets out his coup within a coup in a stark, relatively modern setting. The programme notes refer to some modern history which influenced some of the thinking of the production – but this was never overtly evident in the staging and direction of this simple and direct power grab.
It looked and felt like any country which had not yet completed the struggle from dictatorship or dictatorial monarchy to democracy. A pretty accurate rendition of the 15th century.
Freeman’s Richard was delivered with a cold blooded ruthlessness which has been lacking in some recent versions. The attempt to make Richard seem victim rather than villain has no place in this production. The rather unbelievable seduction of his murdered brother’s wife, Ann Neville, often seen in modern productions is swept away. This Richard makes clear the benefits of marriage and by implication the contrary. Ann quickly recognises which way the wind blows. And it blows cold and strong.
Unfortunately – for her rather than the audience – she makes the usual error of failing to take up the offer of butchering Richard with his own knife when she is offered the chance.
The cramped space of the Trafalgar Studio makes this a play where you are literally on top of the action. And yet that small space allows the actors and the action to easily describe the locations from the intimate rooms of conspiracy to the expanse of Bosworth Field.
Giving a 20th century look to this war of Lancaster and York means this was full on Guns’n’Roses. But as always some historical elements remain. Knives give the requisite amount of blood that can’t quite be fulfilled by a Walther PPK. And the amount of blood was prodigious. Usually the result of off-stage murders which resulted in the bloody murderer, bloody ghost, or bloody severed head appearing on-stage. In one on-stage murder, the fountain of blood justified the front four rows of the tiered seats donning the splatter gowns at the break. A shame that a few people assumed the bloody havoc would be restricted to the final battle of Bosworth. Oops.
This was the most spectacular blood and guts scene, but each murder whether on or off-stage was represented with chilling brutality. The drowning of Clarence in an office fish-tank – complete with live goldfish – was skilfully and realistically enacted. The one-handed strangling of Ann by Richard full of terror.
Although Freeman’s was a cold blooded performance of ruthless ambition, some of it was delivered with genuinely comic humour. If only Richmond had declared in the final blade against pistol confrontation with Richard, “Call that a knife? This is a knife.” the evening would have been complete.
As it turned out the pistol saved us from the one failing of almost every Shakespearean production – the lingering death. No chance here for Freeman to stagger around bleeding from multiple wounds. He had scarcely finished pleading for a new horse when he was dropped stone dead with a single shot. A fitting end for this Richard. Straightforwardly ruthless. Straightforwardly dead.