Saying that Martin Freeman’s Richard III perfectly captures the banality of evil may sound like damning the everybloke actor with faint praise. But this is a clever interpretation of Shakespeare’s ultimate bad guy.
London's last two major Richards were Mark Rylance, the most original actor of his generation, and Kevin Spacey, the most charismatic. Freeman isn’t either of those
things, but in Jamie Lloyd’s production, he smartly plays to his strengths while deftly puncturing his nice guy image.
Lloyd’s trim, lucid ‘Richard’ is set in January 1979, aka the Winter of Discontent, which has the effect of turning the play’s famous opening line into a reasonably good joke. Beyond that, this production’s claustrophobic beige, brown and blood-soaked netherworld is more evocative of the USSR at the height of Stalin’s Terror than Britain’s difficult ’70s.
As murderously ambitious nobleman Richard, Freeman is low-key and dissembling, rarely deviating from clipped, neutral politician’s speaking tones. He orders the execution of enemies and rivals with all the élan of a man reshuffling his Filofax. And somehow that’s terrifyingly plausible, far more than if he were a cackling loon. Moments of ‘Office’-style mugging reveal flashes of a different man, but the truth is that this Richard really is an efficient bureaucrat – and that’s what makes him so dangerous.
Detractors of Lloyd and his starry ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ seasons say he makes over-excitable theatre for audiences with short attention spans. And it does take time to settle – stylistically, the early parts shift from political drama to ‘Abigail’s Party’-style comedy, to supernatural horror. It’s kind of knackering, but after a while Lloyd settles on a claustrophobic Cold War thriller, and from thereon it’s smooth sailing, a stylish ensemble piece indebted to the likes of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'.
Soutra Gilmour’s office set – which makes it apparent that all the action is taking place in a single, cramped building – and Ben and Max Ringham’s eerie ambient music function as the perfect pressure cooker for Richard’s cynical rise to the English throne, and the bloody deeds that pave his way. Freeman makes plenty of room for his cast mates – other fine turns include Jo Stone-Fewings’s palpably dangerous Buckingham and Gina McKee as a regal but deeply afraid Queen Elizabeth.
There is a worry that the prolific Lloyd’s hyperkinetic shows are starting to feel a touch familiar. But once ‘Richard’ takes a cue from its leading man and turns things down a notch, it finds its feet: a cool study in establishment evil.