Directed by Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios (part of the Trafalgar Transformed series).
I have always had issues with this play, nearly all of them down to me being very aware of just how much is Shakespearian propaganda aimed at making Elizabeth I a happy patron and turning Richard into a child killing bogeyman whose defeat at Henry VII’s hands should send us all into transports of delight. I’ve also often found it hard to watch, because Richard is a character who is very easy to turn into a cliché villain who overwhelms and/or eclipses the rest of the cast.
It will come as no surprise that although the script itself remained a problem for me, Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Richard was not and neither was the contribution played by the rest of the cast – every single actor on the stage was excellent, in both performances I attended and Martin really showcased all the nuances that can be found in the Richard that Shakespeare wrote. I laughed, I shuddered and I was chilled to the marrow at times – which is exactly what Shakespeare intended.
What I really wasn’t certain about, the first time I saw it, was Jamie Lloyds staging decisions.
This is an aggressive modern staging, set in 1970’s Britain, and using enough stage blood that I have to wonder whether Mr Lloyd has shares in the company who makes the stuff. My first sight of the stage made me think of the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the latest film version with Gary Oldman) and when I checked the programme it was indeed listed as one of the inspirations. The stage is dominated by two enormous wooden desks facing each other (like a split apart conference table) and surrounded by smaller typing pool type desks and other office paraphernalia. Add to that on-stage seating and a variety of exits (lifts, fire doors and a toilet door) and you have a very busy stage – actually cluttered would be a better word, the cast really are extremely limited as to how they can move.
I have always believed that how a play is staged should enhance the action, not constrain it and I have to say that didn’t seem to be happening the first time I saw the play (right at the start of its run). It seemed to me that several of the actors, including Martin, were being unduly hampered by the set. That said, this feeling had almost completely gone on my second visit – something I would assume is down to a few changes that I noticed as to where on the stage certain things happened and also because I knew what to expect when I walked in. I should also say that the political and social statements Jamie Lloyds staging and directing made with the play were spot on, and I especially liked Henry VII turning up to fight at Bosworth wearing a UN Peacekeeping beret and backed by balaclava clad terrorists (who reminded me strongly of the IRA) – both shining a spotlight on the issues of “peacekeeping” today and mirroring the fact that Henry VII was actually backed by troops that had been inmates of several French jails.
The play is undoubtedly violent – several deaths that Shakespeare scripted as off-stage being brought front and centre – and the front rows of the audience do run the gauntlet of being covered in stage blood, but it fits well with both the Richard Shakespeare wrote and the zeitgeist of the time period in which it’s set.
I’m still not one hundred percent certain I understand all of the staging decisions but overall it is one of the best Shakespeare plays I’ve seen on stage. And that is all down to the cast, because what you’re getting, almost in spite of the blood and the desks and modern setting, is a master class in acting; not just from Martin Freeman but also from the cast as a whole.
So it is on that basis that I urge you to go and see it if you can. The run ends on 27th September and if there are any tickets left, you’ll find them here.