The very first line of Shakespeare's Richard III is "now is the winter of our discontent", and it's a expression that became common currency to describe the cold U.K winter of 1978 and 1979 which was famously affected by widespread public sector trade union strikes. Director Jamie Lloyd has cleverly seized upon those events to set the play in a government conference room, with two long desks facing each other, in which a political winter of discontent will be fiercely played out.
There are still typewriters on the desks, not computers; old phones with cords (one of which will be used to help Richard III effect a particularly gruesome onstage murder); battered flickering TV sets. It's a recognisable world, but not quite today. Yet if designer Soutra Gilmour has given it a smart period sheen, Lloyd directs his actors to give it a concentrated immediacy that pulls you into the here and now.
As Lloyd comments in a programme note, "Inevitably, for Shakespeare always speaks to our times, events in the news chimed with our narrative as we rehearsed" and he cites the case of the schoolboy murderer Elliot Rodger in California reverberating against Richard III's words, "Since I cannot prove a lover,/ To entertain these fair well-spoken days, /I am determined to prove a villain."
As a director, Lloyd has a knack of making Shakespeare immediate, contemporary, fast and furious. He opened his first season at the reconfigured Trafalgar Studios last year -- redubbed Trafalgar Transformed -- with a visceral, violent production of Macbeth starring James McAvoy that became a sell-out hit. I suspect he will repeat the feat as he opens his second season now with this startling, severe staging that churns with an often sickening violence, including an onstage drowning in a fish tank and more blood than you see in Sweeney Todd (at one point the night I saw it the front rows got an impromptu -- and presumably unintended -- spray of the stuff; I saw one man leaving the theatre with his face and jacket liberally splattered with it).
As with Macbeth, too, the play marks the return to the stage of an actor best known now for his screen and TV work, but who has serious stage credentials including appearances at the Royal Court. Martin Freeman, a star thanks to Sherlock and The Hobbit films, brings a riveting strangeness and intensity to the role. There have been reports, which Lloyd has said have been greatly exaggerated, of younger audiences reacting inappropriately at his appearance; Maureen Lipman, who is otherwise engaged starring in Daytona and therefore presumably hasn't seen it, has been drawn to comment, "Martin Freeman's face is on every bus in London. The producers are aiming for people who spend most of their day with wire in their ears. It is not so much Richard III as Richard the rock concert."
That couldn't be further from the truth and is to seriously undermine the committed efforts of the cast to simply tell this story with as much integrity, power and drama as possible. And if, in the process, Lloyd fulfills his ambition to bring in younger audiences, they are rewarded with a production of great clarity in the storytelling and elemental power.
It's also far from a one-man show: around Freeman, Lloyd also fields such fine actors as Gerald Kyd (Catsby), Forbes Masson (Hastings), Gina McKee (Queen Elizabeth), Maggie Steed (Queen Margaret) and Jo Stone-Fewings (Buckingham) to make a rich and powerful ensemble.
"Freeman gives a disappointingly underpowered performance as Richard."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Heavily cut to bring the play in at two-and-a-half hours, this is an inventive production that may well, thanks to Freeman, introduce a new audience to Shakespeare. I'm all for that. But in the end, ingenuity is not quite enough. Lloyd's production looks physically constricted, misses the sweep and grandeur of Shakespeare's chronicle and, in place of the demonic exuberance, offers us a peculiarly bloodthirsty display of office politics."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Freeman gives a highly intelligent, calculatedly understated performance, full of witty mocking touches in his rapid line-readings."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Fans coming to see Freeman won’t be disappointed. But his Richard isn’t seductively charismatic, and the production, while undeniably vibrant, contains too many flashy gimmicks."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard