Martin Freeman as Richard, Lauren O’Neil as Anne. Photo Marc Brenner
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.
Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand
There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?
So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.
1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples. Continue reading
Should I start at the beginning or the end? The very good or the not so good? Any way you look at it, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth at the Trafalgar studios (or Trafalgar Transformed as it’s being rebranded) is a play of two halves: until the interval, I was happy to declare it one of the best productions in recent memory. After the interval, it lost momentum and struggled to regain focus.
Some problems in the second half are due to long absences of the protagonist: his name is above the title and his performance shows he deserves it. James McAvoy accommodates the soldier, the husband, the friend and the killer with surprising ease. The words dance out of his mouth fresh and unexpected. His Macbeth is clear eyed about moral consequences though unapologetic about his choices. Apparitions, ghosts and bloody daggers hang around him as much as in him. He fights them as much as he welcomes them. It’s a fearless commanding performance of light and shade, and it fuels the production. Continue reading