The making of a king

Richard III – Trafalgar Studios (01 July – 27 September 2014)

Richard III, as proved by his miraculous reappearance in a car park in Leicester, is someone who will not stay dead. In the last three years we had already seen three major productions, including turns from the cream of both stage and screen; Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey. It is a brave performer who follows in those footsteps and even braver one who takes it despite minimal recent stage experience and a screen persona that has been fine-tuned to be the polar opposite of the larger-than-life, charismatic king.

However Jamie Lloyd has been using the opportunity presented by Trafalgar Transformed to revitalise the space with high octane productions cast with performers that have been carefully chosen to appeal to a younger Martin Freeman as Richard IIIdemographic without destroying the vitality of Shakespeare’s language.

Richard III, and last year’s superb Macbeth with James McAvoy, blurs the lines between cinematic and theatrical expectations. It is reasonable to quibble with the handling of the language but it is wrong to deny they contain a thrilling visceral energy that may counter the preconceived notions of those whose only experience of theatre is via how drama is taught in schools.

There has been criticism in how Martin Freeman approached the text and it is true the verse of the famous opening monologue is all but destroyed through his delivery. However this is less marked in the rest of the play and often the iambic meter is fluid and complete. He may not have the rounded tones of a natural stage actor but this may be a combination of lack of experience and also the directorial decisions underpinning the play.

Richard III JLC PROD-1522The decision to tackle ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ in that way would not have been taken lightly and, on balance, the production gets away with it because it is being delivered as an address to the nation. If we accept the opening premise that changes it from a traditional monologue to a public speech then it is logically justifiable to deliver it in the clipped rhetorical tones of a politician rather than in the fluid verse of someone expressing their inner-thoughts.

Whilst changing the tone of one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches is controversial, it does allow a wonderful moment that would not otherwise be delivered. To use the language of cinema there is a brilliant smash-cut at ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’; Freeman’s Richard switches instantly from the exterior to the interior, from the public to the private. We see clearly the calculating nature of his public persona and the private contempt of others.

For an audience less literate in the convoluted back story of the play it also makes it easier to recognise the inappropriateness of the good humour he shows to Clarence as he is being sent to the tower. We have already been shown the duplicity of Richard and his ability to – use the jargon of modern politics in which it is set – ‘work the room’. Here with Clarence we witness this as a fine art; understanding, consoling and, naturally, mastering the double-speak that contains no lies – ‘well, your imprisonment shall not be long’.

If this Richard has one overriding trait it is that of the small-man syndrome writ on a national scale. This is most clearly witnessed in the wooing of Lady Anne; a scene that demonstrates both the driving force of this Richard, along with a sense of what makes the production ultimately problematic.

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You don’t have to be mad to extemporise here but it helps

Hamlet – Young Vic, Running until 21 January 2012

Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic begins with an elaborate entrance through the backstage area, which has been transformed into a passage through a mental hospital. As you wind through narrow corridors, you catch glimpses of action through windows and the pervading sense from the TV screens and telephones on display that we are entering the 1970s.

To be honest all this effort feels a little laboured although it does help to immediately ground the play in its overarching theme: is Hamlet mad?  It is a question that has been raked over many times, be it in productions, literary criticism or psychological analysis. However through Ian Rickson’s radical interpretative staging, it is a question that delivers a revelatory redefinition of how the play can be understood.

The play begins with a striking image; Michael Sheen’s Hamlet appears out of nowhere in long shot, trapped in a solitary light shining upstage. Rickson’s exquisite framing is a feature that runs throughout the play but this first image, with a clear allusion to Carol Reed’s The Third Man is particularly notable. It is a potent reference point, immediately conjuring up thoughts of Vienna; the spiritual home of Freud and the psychology movement. The Third Man itself is indebted to German expressionists of early cinema, such as  Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, who were fascinated by madness and its effect on the human condition.

References abound in this play; the 1970’s institutional setting brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, compared to the recent Hamlets of David Tennant and John Simm, Sheen has an alpha-male muscularity that is redolent of Jack Nicholson without, thankfully, adopting any more of Nicholson’s mannerisms.

The other crucial reference point is the work of RD Laing. In a play that has at its heart the discussion and understanding of madness, Laing’s work has a relevance that underpins the perspective that Rickson takes to the play. At the centre of Laing’s theories is the idea that psychosis is not a biological or psychic response but something that can develop out of socio-cultural situations. This has a direct relevance to the understanding of Hamlet. Hamlet is not ‘mad’ per se but he may have become mad due to the conditions that he has found himself within and the drama of the play may be an attempt to break him of that psychosis.

This reading is reinforced through Laing’s idea that ‘going crazy’ can be the sane response to an insane situation. In this, as in so many other cases, we can infer that Shakespeare touched on the principle a few hundred years before the development of psychology as a science. This may be a stretch but it does appear to reflect Hamlet’s understanding of himself; he wishes to assert his own identity, ‘to thine own self be true’, through his understanding and response to his father’s death. However Hamlet’s ideas conflicts with the response demanded by his ‘uncle-father’ Claudius; Laing would argue that Hamlet is stuck between the persona he has created, the avenger of his father, and the one demanded by parental authority and it is in this bind that the context for Hamlet’s ‘madness’ should be understood.

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