Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, London – review

Queen Anne is strangled with a telephone cord, Clarence is drowned in a fish tank, Rivers has a hypodermic needle plunged into his neck. Since Shakespeare never even saw a telephone, we can safely say that none of this is in the original text of Richard III: Jamie Lloyd’s brash, bloody, exciting staging, with Martin Freeman at the helm, flips the tale of murder and Machiavellian tactics into the 1970s corridors of power, where people are despatched amid plates of sandwiches and fax machines.

A programme note explains that the updating arose from a jokey conversation about the 1979 British “winter of discontent”. It’s a bit of a stretch from civic unrest and political infighting to murder in the tower, but Lloyd’s is not a literal transplantation. Rather Shakespeare’s plot allows him to extrapolate from the times – reminding us that in some countries the 1970s was a very nasty decade, presided over by dictators and disappearances, and that there are stories of a coup plot in 1970s Britain – into a dystopian parallel universe in which a military junta takes control. Here the recognisable and the fantastical fuse, as in a nightmare. It’s chilling stuff, delivered with the speed and creeping horror of a thriller.

The setting has its drawbacks. It’s sticky to begin with: the early manoeuvring is hazy and the battle over hereditary succession sits awkwardly with political machinations. Meanwhile the set itself is dominated by two long central desks, which restrict the playing area severely and hinder movement. But once the production gets into its stride, it grips tight, powered by excellent performances.

Freeman’s Richard is a crisp, smiling sociopath whose clipped speech and shrewd wit allow him to turn division and paranoia to his ends. This Richard rises by stealth, like many a dictator. It is only once he is enthroned, and faces down his right-hand man Buckingham, that we see real ice in his conduct. There’s a superb, smooth Buckingham from Jo Stone-Fewings, a pink-faced, blustering Hastings from Forbes Masson and a heart-rending Queen Elizabeth from Gina McKee.

And the setting increasingly comes into its own. One particularly macabre death scene plays out to the background of lift doors opening and closing, offering the prospect of an escape that never comes. Publicity for the show has focused on the liberal amounts of blood on display; in fact, it’s the sinister combination of twinkly lift music and efficient murder that really chills in this ingeniously disturbing response to Shakespeare.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.