×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Richard III’ Starring Martin Freeman

The counter-intuitive casting of Freeman ('The Hobbit,' 'Sherlock') pays ferocious dividends in director Jamie Lloyd's gutsy, impassioned production.

With:
Martin Freeman, Simon Coombs, Philip Cumbus, Gerald Kyd, Joshua Lacey, Paul Leonard, Gabrielle Lloyd, Forbes Masson, Paul McEwan, Gina McKee, Mark Meadows, Vinta Morgan, Lauren O’Neil, Maggie Steed, Jo Stone-Fewings, Louis Davison, Tommy Rodger, Alasdair Buchan, Madeleine Harland, Julie Jupp.

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.

richard-iii-review-martin-freeman

London Theater Review: 'Richard III' Starring Martin Freeman

Trafalgar Studios, London; 398 seats; £69.50, $119 top. Opened, July 10, 2014, reviewed July 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A Howard Panter and Adam Speers for Ambassador Theatre Group and Jamie Lloyd Productions presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Jamie Lloyd, Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound and music, Ben and Max Ringham; fight direction Kate Waters; production stage manager, Lindsey Banwell-Knight.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Simon Coombs, Philip Cumbus, Gerald Kyd, Joshua Lacey, Paul Leonard, Gabrielle Lloyd, Forbes Masson, Paul McEwan, Gina McKee, Mark Meadows, Vinta Morgan, Lauren O’Neil, Maggie Steed, Jo Stone-Fewings, Louis Davison, Tommy Rodger, Alasdair Buchan, Madeleine Harland, Julie Jupp.

More Legit

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content