So following a more official review for ‘Cardiff Shakespeare’ this is my more personal review, with a bit for fan-girl thoughts thrown in.
I wasn’t going to bother with Richard III. Mainly due to logistics/time getting to London and cose of tickets. However, I got lucky with the £15 Mondays deal and knew I’d regret not seeing it. In the end it was a desire to see what Jamie Lloyd (who I’m a big fan of) had done with the production and to see Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham, an actor who I’ve also long been a fan of and is a little more obscure than Mr Freeman.
Much has been made of this production in relation to the blood and the Freeman fans who were aparently just there to see Martin Freeman do Dick. (sorry it’s a cheap joke but you have to admit a good one) I didn’t have a problem with the latter (but I’ll come to that later) and the blood well, there was a fair bit of it to be sure.
The production, I really loved. As I say I’m a fan of Jamie Lloyd and I really see what he was doing with this. In my nit-picking theatre brain I can call out a few things I wasn’t sure of, but these are both nit-picky and personal preference. I’m not a fan of audience on stage, particularly when this seems to serve no purpose to the action. Although having audience on stage did serve the claustrophobic feeling of Soutra Gilmor’s 1970s Cabinet office set, they didn’t really add much to it. For an obvious comparison the NT’s ‘Our House’ had audience members sat as though part of the House of Commons on stage, and had actors at times among them. This added to both set and atmosphere. The set-up in Richard III reminded me of this but didn’t really engage in the same way. That said, there is of course argument for it not needing to serve purpose, but simply to allow a set of seats with a different audience perspective, which is valid.
Much has been made of the blood content in this production In addition to the cuts many of the off stage deaths are brought on stage, often in graphic detail. Much has been made of the violence and sheer volume of blood in this production (those in the first three rows are warned of being in a ‘splash zone’) and while, yes there was quite a bit of blood it didn’t’ feel particularly gratuitous. That said, I’ve watched some very very bloody performances in my time, and I’ve also been watching a lot of Hannibal lately. I guess bloody is in the eye of the beholder. Seeing some of the usual off-stage deaths also brought characterisation or motivation home, further fleshing out what we already knew or felt about some characters. And I did “enjoy” seeing some graphic stage deaths in contrast to some where a slight poke with a sword induces death, or a bloodless gunshot kills everyone immediately. The deaths were long, graphic and drawn out at times, but realistic, something that modern Shakespeare should keep in mind-how in this setting would this character be murdered? how long would it take? how much blood? Lloyd has thought this through and the end fight-‘showdown’ actually seems more appropriate, made good use of an issue that troubles many modern-dress Shakespeare plays, how to deal with the imbalance between guns and swords. In this case effective use of guns versus the knives (rather than swords) across the play makes a profound statement of violence at its close. Also film fans of a certain age, there’s a nice allegory to ‘Seven’ for one of the off-stage deaths. Now that was what I call a lot of blood.
The 1970s political setting works well for Lloyd’s pacey production. It also works well in some of the slower scenes, in fitting with the back and forth and posturing of political debate. The claustrophobic set-the entirety of the action set in a cabinet office also works well with the political heat and (literal) back-stabbing of the narrative. I’ve read comments and reviews that the setting was confusing. Even without buying a programme which apparently has some context for Lloyd’s setting, I still followed the setting and the desired political analogies. The modern-but not quite contemporary setting works well in modernizing a history play (as anachronistic and troublesome as that sentence demonstrates) making the narrative recognizable, but still something ‘other’ lends itself well to the Histories, if they aren’t done in period settings. For me this period worked well for a back stabbing (literally) Richard and his accomplices. It also works well for the roles the female characters serve in Richard III they have power, they have leverage but they are most often on the fringes. For a British political setting of that era their roles also fit well, and the actresses in the naturally male dominated company all delivered excellent performances.
The cast is strong, with a reduced cast fitting the edited nature of the text. Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth and Maggie Steed as Queen Margret as mentioned provide strong female roles in this testosterone filled play. Stand out performance in particular from Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham who delivered a conniving and dark performance. For me, he made the play, to which I was disappointed to realise (spoiler alert) that he’s quickly dispatched with in Act 2. Stone-Fewings held a good balance of conniving, and slippery while utimatly also fallen foul of a far more conniving Richard.
Freeman’s Richard goes against a more common approach to bring a more cautious, calmer but no less nasty Richard to life. I fully believed his attitude inspired by his physical deformities (though Mum was convinced he forgot his limp at times). In his scheming he is a carefully planned and poisonous in that sense a true politician Richard. Personally I missed the charismatic scheming Richard I’ve come to associate with this play. It is still an accomplished performance and fully in fitting with what Jamie Lloyd is trying to achieve with this modern political production. Personally though, it was a disappointing central character. I went in with no expectations, not knowing what Freeman would make of the role, and I left a little deflated. I’m not sure what I wanted but I want to say more. More lasciviousness, more charm, the scene where he convinces Elizabeth to give up her daughter for example, I want Richard to do it through charm, seduction. In this case he didn’t need to, she was tied to a chair and already in his power. Again this is a directing quibble more than an acting issue, but overall that’s where the performance fell for me, a little short of what I felt the play demands. By no stretch is it bad, it’s accomplished and clever and intelligent. But I just wasn’t engaged with his Richard in the way I’d want.
Shakespeare, particularly for fans is such a personal experience, and one that’s won and lost on the strength of the actors in whose hands it falls. I fully respect Freeman’s interpretation, I can see almost beat for beat the thinking and motivation behind the choices he made-and perhaps the direction that went alongside that. But it jsut didn’t do that thing where it hit me in the gut. Funnily enough the more I think about the production the more I love the choices that Jamie Lloyd has made, and by no stretch do I think Freeman is a poor choice. Again I understand that choice, just for me personally it’s a choice that fell flat.
As an aside, this led me, while mentally reviewing the play to consider do I dare to say this out loud? do I dare to review this negatively? to say that Freeman is anything less than brilliant? I look above and see how carefully I’ve chosen my words and I realise how I’ve been influenced by fandom and fan culture around Sherlock and all it entails, both through working on it academically and being a fan. Normally I’m a no holds barred (no holds Bard?!) theatre reviewer (as anyone who has the misfortune to ask me what I thought of One Man Two Guvner’s finds out) but here I’ve been careful. I haven’t lied above, in my intelligent academic side of the brain that’s what I thought. In my theatre reviewer side of the brain I’d write that. As a fan? I’m not sure. I can hear the hatred, based on even what I write here and that’s not fair. Since when did fandom become a ‘with us or against us’ thing? there’s plenty of actors I’ve loved in one role hated in another. Doesn’t mean I now hate the actor as a performer or as a person. Doesn’t mean I’m less of a fan. As a fan I’d say I wasn’t sure before I went in, Freeman is an actor I respect but he always makes me uneasy, that’s the best emotion I can describe watching him on screen, sometimes almost as if I’m scared of him. Anthony Hopkins gives me the same feeling, I don’t always enjoy watching them as actors, I can’t relax. Weirdly on stage I didn’t get that. It’s honestly the most at ease watching Martin Freeman perform that I’ve felt. But somehow that’s contradictory to Richard III I should feel uneasy watching an actor portray him. I’m probably not explaining this well. But being immersed in a fandom comes with baggage, in viewing and reviewing. I will however keep fangirling Jamie Lloyd, who has gotten a lot of flack in the press, and from theatre fan communities, but personally I bloody love the man’s bloody (literally) productions.