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Review: Martin Freeman in Richard III, Trafalgar Studios

14/07/2014 12:00 BST | Updated 11/09/2014 10:59 BST

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There is much that is exciting and innovative about Jamie Lloyd's Richard III at Trafalgar Studios but though it bristles with energy and interesting ideas, for me, it is good rather than great.

Richard III, with the possible exception of Iago, may well be Shakespeare's greatest villain. But unlike Othello's antagonist, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, shares plenty of droll and darkly comical moments with us as he navigates his bloody path to the throne.

Director Jamie Lloyd obviously enjoys the opportunity to reinterpret Shakespeare as, much like his Macbeth with James McAvoy from last year, this play has been brought out of its historical setting in favour of something more current - in this instance, Britain in the late 1970s.

It's a decision that's an obvious nod to the famous opening line "Now is the winter of our discontent." It's an interesting choice but this decision doesn't ever seem to amount to much more than clever word play.

The premise seems to be that, as a response to the country's profound industrial and economic woes, the military has taken over and set up base on an open-plan office floor in a high-rise building. It's a stretch that I wouldn't have minded - I love it when Shakespeare is reimagined - but it was unclear what this setting brought to the production in terms of observation or social commentary.

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And as the play progressed, the setting seemed to create a bit of tangled web as it became harder to shoehorn parts of the play in, such as the Battle of Bosworth. Here, the battle is reinterpreted as a raid on the military compound from an elite force armed to the teeth with machine guns but that, in turn, reduces "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse" to an odd ironic comment.

Yet, having said that, once you let that go, there is much to enjoy with some fine achievements from cast and creative alike.

The set from award-winning designer Soutra Gilmour is wonderful. At first glance, a stage crammed full of desks, televisions, boardroom tables, office telephones and fish tanks seems to offer its cast obstacles rather than opportunities but with some nifty directing and splendid movement from the cast, it morphs into a perfect battleground as desk partitions become walls to cower behind and boardroom tables become battle lines.

And when this is punctuated with touches such as tedious elevator music and executive toys, it lends the atmosphere a wonderful sense of the bizarre that may seem strange, but is actually in perfect keeping with the world being created.

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The acting from the whole cast is strong. I particularly enjoyed Gina McKee who brought real fire and rage to her distressed and cornered Queen Elizabeth. The box-office draw though is, of course, Martin Freeman as the wicked King-to-be.

Martin Freeman has a well-deserved reputation for interesting approaches to text and impeccable comic timing and both those talents are well-used here. He has a great knack for using pauses for dramatic effect and sources of humour, such as when he's asked to address the nobles, all of whom he will of course murder on his way to the top, the disdain is palpable as he starts "Amongst this princely...heap."

Freeman's Richard has a warm, charming veneer to his callous and ruthless heart. But I didn't sense much in the way of real indulgence or revelry in his villainy. And there was no hint of any sexual charisma in his wooing of Lady Anne. Instead Freeman goes for the pity angle, to try to get Anne to feel sorry for him.

I guess it comes down to how you like your Richard III. I prefer mine to be brooding with conspiracy and charisma, for me to be sickened and amused by him in equal measure. After all, when that fourth wall comes down, I like being made to feel as if we're co-conspirators in his heinous crimes - only to be sickened with how far Richard goes.

Freeman's Richard seems more distant from the crimes he demands others commit on his behalf. When Lord Hastings' head is brought to him in a box, Freeman turns away, flinching at the bloodied head when I'm looking for my Richard to be completely unfazed, even to stick his hands in the box to make sure the right guy has been killed.

Much effort is made to ensure newcomers stay on top of the plotting with planned victims spot lit on stage and key plot points sign-posted. In that way, this show works hard to get new audiences (and old!) excited about Shakespeare and about theatre. Not all of this production works and it's unlikely to be remembered as a one of the great versions of this wonderful play, but it's an enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Trafalgar Studios, London to September 27, 2014

Image credits:

1. Richard III - Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil - Photo Marc Brenner

2. Richard III - L-R - Forbes Masson Martin Freeman Philip Cumbus Jo Stone-Fewings - Photo Marc Brenner

3. Richard III - L- R - Simon Coombs Gerald Kyd and Gina McKee - Photo Marc Brenner