'Richard III': Theater Review

Marc Brenner
Martin Freeman and Lauren O’Neil in 'Richard III'
Chockfull of inventive staging, thoughtful use of a period setting and slyly tweaked line readings, this zippy take on an oft-performed play is a blast.

A double Emmy nominee this year for "Fargo" and "Sherlock," Martin Freeman tackles one of Shakespeare’s most complex villains in Jamie Lloyd's London production.

Coming at the climax of the play, one of the best-known lines from Shakespeare's Richard III — "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" — usually occasions a display of battle-weary hysteria from actors in the role. But it says everything about Martin Freeman's angle on the part that he delivers it in this new production at Trafalgar Studios with the quiet, amused disdain of a haughty CEO, peeved that some assistant has neglected to deliver his morning latte.

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Chockfull of inventive staging, thoughtful use of its late-1970s period setting, and slyly tweaked line readings like that one, director Jamie Lloyd's zippy take on this oft-performed material is a blast, mining the play for both its latent black humor as well as its violence. Moreover, it provides the recently Emmy-nominated Freeman with a juicy opportunity to show villainous range beyond the nice-guy roles he's so often cast in for film and TV. Anointed by near-universal critical praise and drawing from both regular theatergoers and Freeman's substantial base of fans for his work in Sherlock, Fargo, The Hobbit and other TV shows and films, the production is now mostly sold out for the rest of its run.

Just as Richard Eyre's benchmark National Theatre staging in the mid-'90s starring Ian McKellan (directed on screen by Richard Loncraine in 1995) reset the play in a speculative 1930s Fascist Britain, this adaptation situates the last gasp of the War of the Roses in Britain's recent past — signified via Soutra Gilmour's set design and props like chunky typewriters, spider plants and massy medium-brown conference tables. The date is specifically 1978 to 1979, the period which came to be known, per the opening line of Richard III, as the "winter of discontent," when strikes paralyzed the country, bringing down James Callaghan's Labour government and sweeping Conservative Margaret Thatcher into power.

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Of course, the adaptation doesn't strain to equate Richard III with Thatcher directly. He's presented more as an all-purpose coup-plotting despot, whose murderous, Machiavellian tactics would just as easily suit regimes in '80s South America or 21st-century Far East Asia. But the choice of period handily underscores the sense in the play that this is the end of an era, as was 1979.

Out will go the literally ailing powerbase of folksy, Northern-accented leaders, represented by King Edward (Paul McEwan) and Queen Elizabeth (Gina McKee); in come the Southerners in suits like Richard and his cronies. Among the latter are smooth apparatchik-cum-killer Catesby (Gerald Kyd) and undersecretarial schemer Buckingham (Jo-Stone Fewings, who steals the scene with his antic evangelical-preacher like turn at the end of the first half). They're all armed, dangerous and ready to make welfare cuts and dismantle unions, while quietly upping the budgets for defense.

It's in this context that the casting of Freeman is particularly inspired, especially for domestic audiences who largely associate him still with his signature role as the hapless cubicle drone Tim in the British version of The Office. If you factor in his widely seen performance as a well-meaning teacher in Nativity!, the various schlubby guys he's played in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's "Cornetto" comedies, and even his characters in Fargo and Sherlock, his persona is built on normcore types — middle-management blokes who seem affably unremarkable until they do something extraordinary like turn into a robot, save the day or kill their wives. Or, in the case of Richard III, they become the king by killing off everyone who stands in his way. That includes, as it happens, his wife (Lauren O'Neil) in a scene not specified by the text but which becomes a chilling set piece — all grunts and furniture crashing — in the play's latter half.

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Unlike other actors such as Anthony Sher, who have used Richard's physical disabilities to produce bravura physical performances, Freeman sports just a bit of padding to suggest a hump and limits the use of his left arm. He pitches his Richard as a mild-mannered pen-pushing type whom no one is likely to notice until suddenly he's in power, like former prime minister John Major but with a slight limp and contract killers on the payroll.

The strategy resonates beautifully with the many acting references in the text. It also makes the moments when he slips into soliloquies more subtle and intimate, underscored by lighting changes and freezes from the rest of the ensemble. Freeman milks humor out of the most unexpected places in the story (a little shrug and eye-point is all it takes to order a hit at one juncture). That makes him seem all the more ridiculous when he has seized power and saunters on in scarlet uniform, blinged to the nines with medals. But it's those silly, pompous little men who make the most evil despots in power.

The adaptation by Lloyd and the company sheds a good deal from the original text, but there's so much stage business going on and the line deliveries from all are so good, the whole thing flows like pumped diesel fuel. Somehow the second half after intermission feels a smidge less engaging than the first, perhaps because all the hectic "cross-cutting" between scenes grows monotonous in its rush towards the finale. But those are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an excellent production that bodes well for Lloyd's upcoming stage reinvention of Back to the Future.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Gina McKee, Jo Stone-Fewings, Lauren O'Neil, Simon Coombs, Gerald Kyd, Forbes Masson, Paul McEwan, Joshua Lacey, Paul Leonard, Maggie Steed, Gabrielle Lloyd, Mark Meadows, Vina Morgan, Stuart Campbell, William Keeler
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costumes: Binnie Bowerman
Lighting designer: Charles Balfour
Music and sound designer: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham
Fight direction: Kate Waters
Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group, Jamie Lloyd Productions