Richard III

Posted on: 12 August 2014 by Olderiswiser Editorial

Laurence Green reviews the modernised version of William Shakespeare's Richard III

Richard III

Shakespearean plays, particularly historical works, usually lose their power and plausibility when attempts are made to update them. Such a case in point is Jamie Lloyd’s new production of Richard III (Trafalgar studios).

The play begins with the line “Now is the winter of our discontent” So Lloyd has decided to set it in the winter of discontent of 1978-79 when the nation was badly hit by widespread strikes and thick now. Another reference point was the earlier attempt by rogue elements to destabilize the Wilson Government and the possibility of coup d’etat in which Lord Mountbatten would have become interim prime minister.

This production starts with an imagined military coup that has ended a civil war between two political factions in a dystopian England. In the aftermath Richard, Duke of Gloucester makes a resolution to claw his way back into political power at any cost. A master of manipulation, subtle wit and beguiling charm, he orchestrates his ascent by spinning a ruthless web of deceit and betrayal. His staunch ambition soon begins to weigh heavy, as the new ruler finds himself utterly alone and steeped in dread, forced to answer for his bloody deeds and face the horrifying consequences.

Lloyd has unwisely decided to set the action in a cramped 1970s committee room with characters despatched amid plates of sandwiches, electric typewriters and fax machines, a mise-en-scene that seems patently absurd in the battle scenes. When Richard declares “My kingdom for a horse” it is treated as a moment of comedy, rather than desperation.

However what gives the production a certain degree of conviction is an excellent central performance by Martin Freeman, making his debut in Shakespearean role and shedding his ‘nice guy’ image, turning the hunchbacked monarch into a smiling sociopath whose dipped speech and shrewd wit allow him to turn division into paranoia to his own advantage – a perfect illustration of the banality of evil. This emerges in one of the productions most chilling moments  - a macabre death scene, played out to the background of lift doors opening and closing, suggesting the prospect of an escape that never comes.

Many of the supporting cast however, with their cheap suits and odd moustaches fare less well in struggling to make their characters convincing but Jo Stone-Fewings is a suitably smooth and sinister as Richard’s right hand man, the Duke of Buckingham and Gina McKee makes queen Elizabeth a model of defiance.

True the production exudes an air of menace throughout but the modernisation of the work in which the corridors of power have a blandly corporate look dissipates the tension and reduces the nightmarish overall effect of the piece.

Richard III

Runs at Trafalgar Studios until September 27th

Box office: 0844 871 7632

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