There is much to like about Richard III. He is an one-man slaughter house, although he is more the senior executive than the cleaver. He is manipulative but he confides in us. In that respect, he is a bit like Hannibal. We spent so much time in his head we might as well like him. Or even trust him. And here is the great truth about Richard III: everyone knows he is the villain so he doesn’t have to be played as one.
Martin Freeman made his name playing “good guys” but this is an oversimplification (as most things in the media are). His performances brim with intelligence and occasional frustration. As Richard III, he starts tentatively but quickly hits his stride. In the scene where Richard does the impossible and woos Anne over her husband’s dead body, the openness of his approach is both alluring and frightening. If his good guys are frustrated by their virtue, his bad guy is frustrated by the absence of ambition. That’s why he kills, because no one is as ambitious as he is. It seems fair. At least to him. He makes a pretty good case for it.
His performance is a rich combination of contempt, impatience, a sense of the ridiculous and a sweaty kind of wit, no more so than when he faces his nightmares. His final monologue is brilliant, his final moments – with a sly nod to Indiana Jones – worthy of a vile but seductive king.
The other actors enter the fray with the same energy and glee: Forbes Masson is a brilliantly confident Hastings, a man who fancies himself a wheeler and dealer, only to realise that his head has been on the block all along. Gina Mckee is a heartbreaking Elizabeth, especially when Richard tries to convince her to broker a marriage with her daughter. She is broken by grief and fear but still won’t give him an inch. Lauren O’Neil’s Anne projects an intelligent kind of stoicism and. when it counts, she shows she is made of a harder metal.
Jamie Lloyd has a no nonsense approach to Shakespeare. He goes for the jugular, sort of speak. I don’t mean he is plain but he finds a way to untangle the threads and that makes for a very satisfying telling of the story. The 70s setting is a blessing and a curse. I come from a country that had a proper hardcore dictatorship in the 70s and everything in the production – the faded yellows and the static of interrupted tv broadcasts – smelt of that fear. But the design, while beautiful in itself, is impractical: the set is dominated by two long desks and five smaller ones. The actors have no space to move and they have to work hard to keep the momentum going.
Regardless, the vitality of the production is hard to deem. It captures a place where fear goes hand in hand with ambition, and the flow of blood, sweat and tears is the price one accepts to pay for sitting at the head of the table, even for a precious few moments.
In a time-honoured tradition with my Shakespeare reviews, the following section has SPOILERS. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled about the production.
Here Be Monsters. I mean SPOILERS.
And so, what about Lady Anne? In Shakespeare’s text, Richard gets married to her and then rids of her in his usual underhanded way (with poison, or something similar, somewhere off stage). Not so here. Richard tells Gatesby
“Rumour it abroad
That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die”.
in the presence of Anne, who listens horrified. In the next scene, Anne – fully aware of what’s about to happen – tells Buckingham:
“For never yet one hour in his bed
Have I enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep”.
And after that, Richard meets his wife and he kills her with his bare hands. This scene is horrific. Anne puts an almighty fight but in the end Richard manages to choke her with a telephone cord (this is echoed in his nightmare at the end of the play) and cuts her. All the while, he exerts and grunts and some of it is reminiscent of sexual activity. It’s disturbing, it’s harrowing and a line is crossed.
Richard finds a strange kind of comeuppance in his final moments: face to face with Richmond, he carries only a knife while Richmond points a gun at him. Richard pulls a face at the inadequacy of his weapon, cries for a horse and Richmond shoots at him. It’s the right combination of shocking, silly, weird and pointless that any struggle for power is.
P.S. My friend revstan was less forgiving about the setting, you can read her thoughts here.