Watching the infamous title character slash his way through his family tree en route to the throne in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” tends to be like entering a maze: You know where it’s headed but the journey is almost absurdly confusing. Not here. Jamie Lloyd’s vigorous production is remarkable for its fierce lucidity. It’s selling fast due to the casting of Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit,” “Sherlock”) but audiences are getting a whole lot more than just Freeman’s flinty, laser-like performance.
As with his highly successful production of “Macbeth” headlined by James McAvoy, Lloyd is keenly aware of attracting audiences unfamiliar with the story. With clarity as his goal, he and his regular designer, Soutra Gilmour, swap literal fidelity to the historical period for a more contemporary, instantly recognizable physical world in which characters and, crucially, their status becomes immediately clear.
In the 398-seat theater, audiences are seated on either side of a traverse set of a nondescript 1970s office. Two rows of long desks face each other. These create lines of command, panels for press-conference-style announcements and a division between the opposing factions. It’s a neat conception, instantly and literally locating and clarifying which side people are on. Neither of London’s recent productions of the play — Sam Mendes’ with Kevin Spacey and Tim Carroll’s with Mark Rylance, both of which made it to Gotham — managed to delineate all the surrounding characters with anything like this clarity. Knowing who everyone is and why they matter creates a far more invigorating dramatic whole and much greater urgency.
That latter quality is at the heart of Lloyd’s notably fleet production, which clocks in at 45 minutes shorter than the Mendes/Spacey staging. This is not simply the result of textual trims. Lloyd engenders a dynamic sense of purpose by encouraging everyone to act on the line, rather than allowing them to pause for overly illustrative “thinking” acting.
The focus throughout is on the relationships and on what the characters need from each other at any given moment. Lloyd partly achieves this by ensuring wherever possible that characters mentioned by others are onstage at the time, even when not speaking in the scene. It’s a simple device that pays huge dividends as audiences are constantly clued in to who everyone is.
The effect is that although Richard refuses to give thought to the consequences of his action upon others, we certainly do. That’s particularly clear in Lloyd’s handling of the usually undervalued female roles. Gina McKee’s Elizabeth is all the more moving because we appreciate how she is connected to everything. Aided by Charles Balfour’s scary lighting sparks and Ben and Max Ringham’s eerie soundscape, the curses and prophecy of Maggie Steed’s Queen Margaret land with unusual weight. And the staging of Richard’s horribly drawn-out and truly frightening strangling of his wife Anne is not just vivid (kudos to Kate Waters’ fight direction), it makes you understand how Richard’s conscience-free mind works.
Freeman, whose Richard is crippled down one side, gives that scene his all, snorting and breathing like an animal. That savagery is a horribly logical and effective climax to everything he has been doing. It’s prefigured in his ruthlessly crisp, clipped delivery that initially masks the character’s impatience. He nails the self-satisfied psychopathic side with tiny, well-placed bursts of self-satisfied humour. Even when furious at his loss of control and power, he always keeps the audience with him because he never shouts or loses control.
Freeman’s highly effective screen stock-in-trade is his benign thoughtfulness. He must have leapt at the chance to display considerably more range. Lloyd’s counterintuitive casting crowns a gutsy, impassioned production.