Richard III

I went to see Martin Freeman’s Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios on Monday night.  I suppose I ought to write my review before I read anyone else’s (it was the press night last night) so here we go.  I should begin by explaining that I was sitting on the stage, in one of the rows of seats behind the performance area so I was both extraordinarily close to the actors but also looking at the backs of their heads for much of the time. 

Freeman gave a good performance: he comes with baggage, of course (Tim from the office, Arthur Dent, Bilbo, John Watson… ) but the performance I saw was relatively calm on the daffy-fan-behaviour spectrum and his trademark “can you believe this?” sideways look at the audience actually works well for Richard.

The conceit of the production is that the “Winter of Discontent” refers to the 1970s and that there was some kind of coup.  Broadly, imagine the unions (or at least the working class, or at least people with thick Yorkshire accents) were the defeated Lancastrians, and the ruling classes were the sons of York.  Which is neat; and the set – two face to face conference tables and some desks with 1970s typewriters, faxes and phones – looked as if it might be fun too.  And the opening scene worked with the concept, Richard holding a microphone and making “now is the winter…” as a formal speech, and then putting down the mike and making it clear we were hearing his private thoughts about his villainous intent.

But that was the extent of the cleverness: after that the seventies were wasted and what we had was just a bunch of guys in oddly cut suits and improbable sideboards, looking like your mad uncle from way back when…

There were some shocking moments.  Clarence, in particular, was drowned by dunking in a fish tank not six feet away from where I was sitting and I couldn’t see how the actor survived it except by holding his breath, so kudos for that effect (assuming it WAS an effect and not awesome lung power!) There was a truly horrific scene of domestic violence with Richard murdering Anne in a one armed strangling that turned into an epic fight for life and had me covering my eyes.  And I walked off backstage to find the floor literally spotted with stage blood from the gore-covered exits.

So it was good.  There were some good performances, particularly Martin Freeman’s Richard and Gina McKee’s queen.  But… but… but…

But it wasn’t clever.

It was set in the 1970s.  To me, the absurdity of the scene where Richard confronts Anne over her dead husband’s bleeding body and says, in effect, yes, I know I killed your father and your husband but it was *all your fault* for being so hot, so how about it babe? COULD actually be made to work.  How?  Sedation and roofies.  Hysterical female crying at a death?  Bring in a compliant doctor, stuff her full of drugs, and you have your obedient zombie bride.  If the director had read A Woman On The Edge Of Time at an impressionable age as I did, well, it might have worked.

And, slightly earlier than the actual Winter of Discontent, what about Nixon?  What more perfect way could there be to encapsulate the vainglory of someone keen to be understood by history and yet in no way to modify his behaviour than to have Richard “record” his soliloquies like the Nixon tapes?  

Where were the cameras?  Yes, there was an ancient TV camera wheeled on at the end for the triumphant Henry to make his final speech, but some seventies tech would have worked brilliantly with the concept – what was the scene with the citizens asking him to take the crown but a TV interview with a bunch of paps standing by?  When – I kept asking myself – were they going to use the bloody typewriters?  Employ half a dozen actresses who could type, to sit on the sidelines and type all these despatches, and faxes, and ticker tape messages going out to the various troops?  (And then they could have put on balaclavas and made the final battle scene a bit less one-on-one!)

So, yes, I enjoyed it, enormously.  But I enjoyed the production I was directing in my head a lot more.  Sorry and all that.




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