Thursday, August 14, 2014

July 24: Trafalgar Production of "Richard III"

I returned late last night from the Trafalgar Studios production of Shakespeare's Richard III, one of his most politically driven and famous plays. (Photo obtained from

This production was fantastic! I was giddy by the intermission and
exploding with thrills by the final curtain. The setting of this production was intriguing. Taking a nod from the play's famous opening line ("Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer"), the director decided to set the play in what truly was the winter of Britain's discontent, the winter of 1979. The post-war years notwithstanding, the 1970s were the worst decade Britain has known, full of economic turmoil, massive strikes, and impending violence. Evidently, there was even talk of overthrowing the Labor Party with a military coup. Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, which did not exactly solve anything. Setting the play in this era was a gutsy move, in my opinion, and really enriched the play, making it very accessible. I was also fascinated with the setting given my paper will deal with Shakespeare’s sources for his history plays. Truly, the ease with which Richard III was adapted into a 1970s setting reflects the malleability of both the play itself and its source material. Shakespeare was simultaneously giving his audience a history lesson (albeit a biased one) and a drama with relatable characters in a relatable setting. I kept thinking about the sources for both Shakespeare and this production while watching the play.

The entire play took place in what looked like a military/office meeting. There were two long tables facing each other (perpendicular to the audience) with tacky olive green chairs to capture the seventies look. The stage resembled an office, complete with a coffee station. One really clever addition was the seventies televisions that faced the audience. There were two flanking the edges of the stage, and they projected Richard's image during his monologue and during Richmond's final monologue after he defeats Richard, becoming King Henry VII. There were also posters on the outer edges of the stage with different kings' pictures, depending on where we were in the play. Returning to the malleability of the sources, I was fascinated with the messages the set itself sent about images and the emphasis placed on “charisma” in a politician—or monarch—and how that message really does transcend eras. I’m not sure to what extent that will apply to my paper topic, but it’s worth investigating.

Going into the actual performances, though, Martin Freeman's was so good! He brought a level of comedy to the role I've neither witnessed nor considered. His tone and timing were impeccable: I've never seen Richard played that way. One of my favorite scenes is, of course, the famous wooing scene in which Richard seduces Lady Anne while she is crying next to her husband's corpse. He was hilarious and creepy at the same time, having just the right timing and tone with his delivery. For instance, when Anne asks him where he wants to be, he says "Your bedchamber" so matter-of-factly I just burst out laughing. Usually Richard is played as a lecherous villain, but I was more convinced by Martin's Richard, who is insecure, witty, and out-right scary. I laughed and felt repulsed, often at the same time, during the production. 

There was a good bit of blood in the play, which I liked given Shakespeare's play is extremely violent. For instance, after Hastings is beheaded, Tyrrel, one of Richard's handy-men, brings out a box. The actors, both Martin and the other actor, built up so much tension by opening the box slowly, then rummaging to pull out the head. For a moment, I expected them only to suggest they looked at the head, but that was not to be; Tyrrel pulls out the head and holds it up for everyone to see. They actually had a head (although not a real one) and soaked it with blood. You could hear the entire audience gasp when it was pulled out. Similarly, when Richard cuts another man's throat, there was blood shooting out. I saw girls on the front row jump, both from being startled and from not wanting fake blood on their clothes. 

Richard's death scene was equally scary, with Richard and Richmond facing each other with the thickest tension of the play. Martin Freeman was so great in this scene (as with the rest of the play): he is holding a knife when Richmond enters the stage, holding a gun. Martin looks at the knife briefly, kind of chuckled and shrugged, then gestured for Richmond to come fight him anyway. Again, this is just another example of how Martin blended comedy into the gruesomeness of this play. The scene ends with Richmond shooting Richard, and the gun shot was so loud it sounded real. Everyone, including me, jumped. Richmond's final monologue was extremely creepy, as they "televised" it on the two seventies televisions. 

When the play was over and the cast came out to bow together, I clapped vigorously; when Martin came out alone, however, I was the first one to jump up and give him a standing ovation.
This was a fantastic, exciting, and, above all, brilliantly acted play. I am beyond sad about leaving London in the next 48 hours, but I am overjoyed I had the opportunity to see this production here. Whenever I watch Sherlock, I'll be able to watch it with pride.

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