Film and tv stars don’t always make successful transitions to stage, the recently opened The Crucible being a prime example. Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III however, with The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins and Sherlock’s Doctor Watson, Martin Freeman, as the psychotic monarch comes off rather better.
Lloyd’s is an arresting if occasionally eccentric modern dress production, `inspired’ by the `the winter of discontent’ of 1979 when the rubbish piled up in the streets and government and unions were at loggerheads. It was also a time of Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy, of dark mutterings and conspiracies, not least by British security services to unseat with a coup d’etat, the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, seen by some in the Establishment as a Soviet agent.
Freeman then is presented as a man entirely at home in pinstripe suit – later, startlingly in the full scarlet and blue regalia of a House of Windsor royal – and British Army Colonel in Chief.
Smooth-faced, quietly watchful, as his deeds grow bloodier, his head juts forward like an eager spaniel. But there is nothing cuddly about the way he personally dispatches his wife, Lady Anne, with hog grunting brutality. Indeed, the murders of Clarence, Rivers and others have a particularly bloody gruesomeness about them.
Freeman it is though who inevitably steals the show with Gina McKee (Queen Elizabeth) and Maggie Steed (Queen Margaret) not entirely helped by some strange blocking.
Freeman’s performance is remarkable not least for his careful textual delivery, often sardonic but never hectoring. Lloyd’s production as a whole admirably restrains itself from the general shouting that mars so many modern productions although his use of public mics is overdone. His decision, too, to set the whole drama within the confines of an office (taking his cue from Freeman’s alter ego as Tim Canterbury in The Office?) proves self-defeating and physically limiting.
There are some wonderful moments of contemporary resonance such as Buckingham (the excellent Jo Stone-Fewings)’s orchestration of Richard’s faked humility accepting the crown and the sense that Buckingham, like MI5, has everything under surveillance.
Fresh and invigorating, this is definitely a civil service oriented revival, one for Yes, Minister fans, if without the laughs.