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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RICHARD III
at Trafalgar Studios

WHEN THE CRIMES FIT NOT THE MAN
By JOHN NATHAN

  Forbes Masson and Philip Cumbus/ Ph: Marc Brenner

It is the casting that intrigues in Jamie Lloyd's latest West End Shakespeare show. If that is a strange term to describe one of the Bard's plays, remember that in this Trafalgar Transformed season the director has made Shakespeare as bankable a commercial proposition as a jukebox musical – almost. He has done it in part by casting A-list stars in two of Shakespeare's A-list roles: James McAvoy as Macbeth and now Martin Freeman – most recently on screen as Bilbo Baggins but still best loved in the UK for his portrayal of Tim in the original series of The Office – as Richard III.

This is a counterintuitive marriage of actor and character because Freeman does “nice” better than almost any of his peers. And there is no such thing as a nice Richard. Nor is there any such thing as a Richard without sexual charisma, another quality that Freeman isn't exactly known to have in Clooney-esque proportions. And yet here he is confronting Gina Campbell's poised Queen Elizabeth with the notion that having killed the men in her family he is a suitable husband for her daughter, and earlier winning Lauren O'Neil's quite lovely Lady Anne with a seduction technique that includes admitting that it was he who murdered her husband whose body lies at their feet. The chutzpah of the man.

We wait for Lloyd's production to make sense of this disparity between lack of charisma and deed, but it doesn't come. Instead the whole evening is devoted to an interpretation of the play's (and Richard's) opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” It is set during the UK's industrial unrest of the 1970s – aka the winter of discontent. It's a neat idea. All the action takes place in designer Soutra Gilmou's vision of a government conference room. The effect is very cool in a retro faddish kind of way. And the cast exits and enters through elevator doors on either side of the set, which is fun. 

But misjudgments eventually begin to tell. Jo Stone-Fewings as a public school Buckingham is terrific up until the scene where he publicly persuades Richard to take the throne. At that moment his English reserve gives way to the persuasive powers of a Louisiana gospel preacher at full evangelical throttle. And you think "why?" Freeman meanwhile deploys an entertaining but ultimately underpowered line in ironic shrugs and gestures as the quiet man who goes about spilling blood like water. It is trait that is interesting and often funny in the way English understatement is. But in emotional terms it's not powerful enough to match the enormity of Richard's crimes. 

Still, Freeman has proved he has nothing to fear in Shakespeare. And with the right role his performance could do terrifically well. I see hjm as an Iago who, to those who don't know him, is a very nice man indeed.

 


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