Review by Sujata Iyengar (University of Georgia)
Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman as Shakespeare’s crafty king, has been covered widely and sensationally enough by the UK press that my mother bought me, unasked, a ticket to the production during my annual visit home and even quizzed me, post-performance, about the refurbished venue. The press coverage bemoaned the popular advertising campaign that, an actor complained, blazed “Martin Freeman’s face…on every bus in London”; complained about “an unwelcome crowd” of low-rent Hobbit fans who laughed or cheered at inopportune moments; and condemned the splashy warning given to audience members in the first rows of the auditorium and stage seating that they risked a drenching in stage blood. Tim Walker praised Freeman’s “chilling” king in the Sunday Telegraph, although both Michael Billington in The Guardian and Paul Taylor in The Independent found the setting and characterization too redolent of “office politics,” too small for Richard’s grandiose and world-changing ambition.
The mixed reviews of the mainstream press accurately reflect the production’s many, vividly imaginative and sometimes thrilling touches alongside its abject failures. Ultimately, however, the production delivered a triumph through Freeman’s ability to deliver the verse so freshly, clearly, and wittily that “naïve” audience-members not only understood the details of Richard’s plotting — including the plan to declare Edward’s sons illegitimate and the need for the support of the city of London — but also caught his sarcasm and verbal humor, finding themselves first shocked at Richard, then amused, and then shocked at themselves. (The judicious cutting and speedy delivery, which trimmed one of Shakespeare’s longest plays to a brisk two-and-a-half hours, helped to streamline the plot, too). My neighbor, a U.S. visitor unfamiliar with the play, audibly gasped at moments such as Richard’s dismissal of Anne, “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long,” or his open scheming to kill his young nephews. Some reviewers mocked the audience for reportedly cheering at Richard’s opening speech. I did not hear any cheers — or boos — when I saw the production, but if audience members did vocalize in this way, they were responding appropriately to the staging, which had Richard deliver the first half of the speech “straight,” into a microphone, as public propaganda (hence the cheers), and the second unmiked, spotlit, as a soliloquy (the boos). I thought that this miking technique failed during the opening but worked better later on during the play; it’s a tired gambit for professional Shakespeareans but was perhaps helpful in introducing viewers new to Shakespeare on stage to the convention of soliloquy.
I was initially skeptical about the high “concept” — the play’s setting in an alternative universe in which a successful coup in the 1970s “Winter of Discontent” in Britain had placed the country under martial law — but this deliberately banal and bureaucratic setting freshened both the play and character. Freeman played a compelling and believable tinpot dictator. He was physically just right for this interpretation of the role: funny, with a deadpan delivery, but vicious at the same and utterly, utterly demonic. As I watched this deliberately charmless Richard quietly commandeer a power totally out of proportion to his physical presence or magnetism, I suddenly thought, “I bet this is what happened in the presidential palaces in Uganda or Syria or Romania”: pseudo-civilized savagery, civil-servant demagoguery.
The gore was not as excessive as the warnings would lead one to expect. Nonetheless the play interpolates additional graphic violence to this already-bloody play, with off-stage murders taking place on stage. Richard strangles Anne (Lauren O’Neil) during a prolonged and active struggle reminiscent of Imogen Stubbs and Willard White’s in Trevor Nunn’s 1990 Othello; Richard eventually throttles Anne with a curly telephone cord–from a bright red 1970s rotary telephone, of course. Clarence (Mark Meadows) drowns in a fish tank, complete with goldfish, and has his throat cut in the water for good measure. Rivers’ spurting carotid artery douses the audience in a fountain of blood. The canned elevator music and the mechanical sounds of the lift doors opening and closing during particularly violent murders worked nauseatingly well.
The stellar ensemble acting also helped the imaginary coup seem like something that could really happen (and that, as the programme somewhat sensationally informed us, might have actually been plotted in England during the waning years of Harold Wilson’s government). I’d single out Catesby (Gerald Kyd) and Rivers (Joshua Lacey, in a sky-blue wide-lapelled suit like something from a David Hockney painting) as especially compelling — I had never really noticed their distinctiveness as characters before, despite the many times I’ve read, seen, and taught the play. Buckingham (Jo Stone-Fewings) shone as Moloch to Richard’s Beelzebub, and this Buckingham was more of a stage-manager even than Richard (as the texts suggest). Stone-Fewings delivered “Look you get a prayer-book in your hand” as a moment of unaccustomed, delighted, theatrical inspiration; you could tell that this Buckingham, like any good functionary, generally avoided rather than sought such imaginative touches. One of the difficulties of playing Buckingham is that the audience knows that Richard will betray Buckingham long before Buckingham appears to do so; the character can thus seem inconsistently naïve. This Buckingham reminded me of Tim Stamper in the UK House of Cards, itself based in part on Richard III, and like that character, this Buckingham’s lack of imagination explained in part his surprise when the man he imagined to be his ally and puppet-functionary suddenly and quietly turned on him with, “I am not in the giving vein.”
Maggie Steed’s Margaret formed an unfortunate exception to the success of the ensemble acting, however. She was hampered first by a vague concept that no-one could quite understand and that did not fit with the 1970s post-military coup time period. Within the mostly realistic presentation and characterization, she was suddenly spot-lit and the actors behind her frozen, as if she were a supernatural visitor. “Is she a ghost, or not?” my neighbor asked, puzzled by the inconsistency. The second set of Margaret’s difficulties stemmed from the use of feedback from the microphone and poor directorial choices about pace and delivery that made her all but impossible to understand.
The battle scenes were likewise out of place. The entire stage action took place within a dingy room lined by two long tables with all the paraphernalia of a pre-computer-age presidential office: rotary telephones, pads of paper, microphones, tape-recorders, and even (in a booth at stage right) a recording studio for radio and television broadcasts. Audience members were seated in the auditorium and in rows on stage, as if we were watching politicians from the public gallery in the House of Commons. Such a setting worked beautifully to establish the lines of division between factions by “instantly and literally locating and clarifying which side people are on” and explains why the minor characters became so memorable, as David Benedict astutely notes in Variety. During the battle scenes, however, the set’s limitations became absurd. We enjoyed what my companion called “one glorious moment” at the beginning of the long concluding battle sequence, when soldiers entered through the opened stage-door from the street on to the set, like the paratroopers storming the Iranian embassy in Kensington in 1980. After this frankly thrilling entry, the subsequent scenes seemed both implausible and confusing. Lloyd used flashing lights and clanging alarums to simulate a siege or hostage-crisis, but the whole sequence proved frustratingly unimaginative in contrast to the production’s earlier decisions. The excessive use of feedback (once more) made the ghosts hard to understand; although Ben Brantley in The New York Times praises Philip Cumbus’s Richmond as a “demented wacko,” I did not find this Richmond to be especially distinctive; and the single-set, single-room, single-office just could not make any sense of “My kingdom for a horse!” With a little bit more imagination, and maybe some use of projection, the production could have kept its 1970s coup concept but made us feel as though there was a battle going on outside. At the very least they could have opened up the stage-door again. And next time, don’t stop taking risks: after making so many changes to fit the concept already, why not just cut the famous line about the horse?
 Ben Morgan, “‘Hobbit’ fans ‘ruin’ Martin Freeman’s West End return by screaming throughout Richard III,” Evening Standard, 7 July 2014, < http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/hobbit-fans-ruin-martin-freemans-west-end-return-by-screaming-throughout-richard-iii-9588304.html>; Agencies, “Martin Freeman fans ‘ruin’ Richard III,” Telegraph, 6 July 2014, < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/10949592/Martin-Freeman-fans-ruin-Richard-III.html>; Tim Walker, “Richard III, Trafalgar Studios: ‘chilling’,” Sunday Telegraph, 13 July 2014, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/10958942/Richard-III-Trafalgar-Studios-chilling.html>; Michael Billington, “Martin Freeman’s accomplished office politics not enough,” The Guardian, 9 July 2014, < http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jul/09/richard-iii-review-trafalgar-studios-london-martin-freeman>; Paul Taylor, The Independent, “Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance,” 9 July 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/richard-iii-trafalgar-studios-review-martin-freeman-gives-highly-intelligent-performance-9595599.html
 David Benedict, “London Theater Review: ‘Richard III’ Starring Martin Freeman,” Variety, 9 July 2014, < http://variety.com/2014/legit/reviews/richard-iii-review-martin-freeman-london-theater-1201259724/>.
 Ben Brantley, “If They’d Overthrown the Labor Party,” The New York Times, 18 July 2014, < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/theater/in-london-the-latest-richard-iii-is-a-bureaucrat.html>.