After a successful string of productions, Jamie Lloyd – a man with one heck of a résumé and the Artistic Director behind Trafalgar Transformed – opens his second season with a piece of casting that’s had not just theatre-goers but fans of The Hobbit and Sherlock titillated with anticipation.
Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins and Dr Watson, is a BAFTA award winner, and here leads the cast as the deformed, jealous figure of Richard III. Subtly bringing the deadweight of his lifeless limb to his side in this imagined dystopian 70s Britain, you’ve never seen him so manipulative.
Historically speaking, the play takes place in the aftermath of the War of the Roses, but leave that at the door. Soutra Gilmour’s design gives us a conference room in which two adjacent tables run parallel, two elevators for side entrances with traditional 12” TVs scattered on four corners blaring news footage. This production takes the houses of Lancaster and York and replaces them with two military coups, both intent on overthrowing the government. In essence then, being King is more like being Prime Minister. Jibing at a horrible moment in Britain’s history with the opening reference to the ‘winter of discontent’ Richard proclaims, “I am determined to prove a villain”, plotting to take what he feels he is owed and destabilizing the nation in the process.
Lloyd’s direction is filled with adrenaline and conspiracy, all underscored by a drum-filled soundtrack by Ben and Max Ringham. Varying misty colours flood through the elevator doors and pierced bullet holes in lighting designed by Charles Balfour. You can’t help but feel as though you are Sam Fisher of the Splinter Cell franchise, spying on these politicians – their reflections bouncing from sheets of glass angled high above the stage, the production ‘mirroring’ the very actions of the CIA and MI5.
The major lacking factor is the belief behind the need to survive. At no point during any fight is there the sense of any real threat. Kate Waters’ choreography is far too complex, using too many inanimate objects that quite frankly just get in the way. These are the only times Freeman appears too timid, which is particularly encumbered by the massive disadvantage of his character’s disfigurement. However, right at the end, silhouetted, cornered, contemplating his measly weapon, he jokes “My kingdom for a horse”, and there is a vision of him charging King-like to his demise. And the demise that follows is truly monstrous.
Even at this play’s intense height, both in action and rhythm, the text is executed with precision and clarity, not only in pace, but in thought. Not a syllable is missed. This production may not be perfect, but the iambic pentameter treads the plot’s trail as well as any Baker Street detective.