The stage is so slick with stage blood that Martin Freeman’s Richard III comes close to skidding in it as he comes on to take his last bow. And it’s not just the floor that’s so lavishly be-crimsoned: hair, faces, shirts, pretty much everything and everyone is coated in gore by the end.
Full of cinematic reference Jamie Lloyd’s production is set in a kind of dystopian, alternate 1970s, in the aftermath of a coup. The characters wear military dress or sharply tailored suits and there are a fair few Commissioner Gordon moustaches on display. But intriguing as this is as a set-up, there are times when instead of presenting a politically and dramatically coherent world, Lloyd does seem to have thrown everything at the stage in order to see what sticks. Actors freeze mid-scene while Richard makes his asides; there are a lot microphones conveniently lying around, of which the characters often make use; there’s white noise and green light, frequent bursts of pounding music, not to mention all the Ringham brothers’ long low notes, a constant awful under-hum; there’s a confusing gas mask opening sequence which is never really referenced again, and of course there’s an abundance of blood, great arterial fountains of the stuff which threaten to paint the front row red.
Lloyd’s regular collaborator (she’s worked on all the Trafalgar Transformed productions), designer Soutra Gilmour, clearly has a thing for bunkers – as displayed in her Iron Curtain Antigone at the National – and her set is part political back-office, part War Room, part underwater Bond villain lair, lit from above by panels of queasy seaweed green (on one of the desks sits a sizeable spider plant, a lovely little detail which made me smile). I was a little bit worried about those lifts which sat at either side of the stage – worried about what might emerge when the doors slid open.
But in actual fact it was closer to this, even down to the creepy ping of the elevators. (No snakes though)
At the centre of all of this, Freeman gives a smart, controlled performance that works well in the context of the production. While his Richard is forceful in his own clipped inward way, he trades in oratorical energy for a kind of bureaucratic, pin-striped briskness; he’s menacing but also efficient, driven. His physicality is interesting too. As with his Watson there’s a precision to his movements. Bearded, with his hair neatly scraped, his back is slightly hunched and his right arm hangs limply at his side, but he walks with relative ease and occasionally plays on the public perception of his deformity, exaggerating his limp, going full-on Quasimodo.
Freeman steers away from the mannerisms that sometimes creep into his screen performances – that nervous tic motion of the head to the left – and the way he plays Richard is almost flat at times, but this flatness makes the moments when the mask suddenly slips all the more effective. The gently unrelenting way he pursues Lauren O’Neil’s Lady Anne in the beginning is properly unsettling, but Lloyd later undermines him by having Richard duct tape Gina McKee’s dignified Queen Elizabeth to a chair in order to get what he wants, as if the force of his personality might not be enough to sway her.
Though his performance is for the most part a measured thing, even wry at times, when he loses it a very brutal Richard emerges, one who appears to have no qualms about getting his hands – well, his hand – dirty and the protracted scene in which he murders Anne, bounding easily from desk to desk before strangling her to death, is pretty tough to watch. Freeman’s performance is unnerving here. He seems to hum and grunt with pleasure as he presses the life from her.
During this prolonged sequence I kept finding myself thinking of this interview with Hattie Morahan about voicelessness and the woman as victim trope; I also found myself thinking about when Mark Rylance played Richard at the Globe, and the tender way he stroked Lady Anne’s hand as he foretold her death, how elegant that scene was, how still and yet how chilling.
There is one brief moment of stillness towards the end, when the storm is building and the characters have switched from ceremonial dress to combat fatigues, where Richard is obliged to pause and have his gloves put on for him. It’s one of the only instances in which Richard has to relinquish control and I wanted to see his face properly as this happened, but it was a fleeting moment, lost amid the stabbing and slicing.
Lloyd has talked about his desire to stage Shakespeare in a way that will be easily accessible to people who don’t ‘speak’ theatre, who are coming to these plays clean, and for him that seems to mean making them fast-paced and visually engaging, which does make sense and does work to an extent, but he does seem to take particular delight in creating messy set-pieces – death by fish-tank, a scene of torture that ends in a violent, frothing, fitting demise – at the expense of nuance.
The programme notes cite Le Carre and Kubrick as key influences, but there’s a more intricate lace-work of cinematic reference going on here. Interestingly Freeman’s Richard feels far closer to The Usual Suspects’ Verbal Kint- the quiet man hiding a monster inside of him – than Kevin Spacey’s Richard III ever did, and towards the end the whole thing starts to go a bit Romero – only here the dead don’t just walk, they fight back. The murky world of early David Fincher also springs to mind. And yet Seven is a film that still lives in people’s heads because of its (relative) restraint, because of what it leaves unseen. Here it’s telling that when an ominous cardboard box is delivered and Richard eagerly slits it open with his dagger, Lloyd can’t quite help himself, from plunging in, red to the elbow, from holding the dripping thing within aloft.