It seems as if Martin Freeman is destined never to escape the office. In Jamie Lloyd's new production of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, Freeman plays the eponymous anti-hero battling, for some unknown reason, for control of a cramped and ugly 1970s typing pool.
This is genuinely one of the worst sets we have seen on the London stage — and director Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour must be called to account. Not only is this office an eyesore, all Formica veneers and olive green baize, it also sets up a series of technical problems for the actors that even the very gifted Freeman struggles to overcome.
While the audience is left pondering — why are we in a 1970s office? — the cast is left puzzling — how are we going to negotiate this minefield of random flat-pack furniture? The clutter manages to bisect every conversation and renders basic stage chemistry almost impossible. At one point, as if to sum up the sense of frustration, the usually-so-winning Gina McKee gets gaffer-taped to a chair and is left there kicking and writhing against it while she tries to hold a conversation.
The set is a continual distraction — and not just because it looks like something out of a Two Ronnies sketch. It also screams 'health and safety nightmare' and when one of the young princes bounces in on a space hopper, there is a palpable tightening in the audience. Never mind Uncle Richard, watch out for the corners of the desks!
There was a vague hope that the set might shift about a bit during the interval but, alas no. As a result, the climactic Battle of Bosworth becomes absurd beyond words. It’s a mystery what possible meaning “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” can have while the king is standing next to a water cooler. Was this directed by David Brent?
It’s also an error to sit a hundred-odd audience members at the back of the stage. Not only does this screen of 21st century people add more visual clutter (a lot of yawning, two people left for the loo), but again it shows total disregard for the poor actors, who have to continually play to two sides of the stage.
It’s testament to Martin Freeman’s skill, experience and determination that against all these mounting odds, he very nearly succeeds. He puffs and pouts and struts about his office like a power-pissed penguin — an arresting comic performance that revels in the ironies of the character (unexpectedly recalling Arthur Lowe in Dad’s Army).
But he never really looks truly comfortable with the heavier stuff and is prone to the same stagey tics as the rest of the cast — a lot of hand-wringing and finger-wagging. Freeman is miscast certainly, though perhaps with clearer direction his unusual sitcom-esque turn could have really worked (incidentally, the best Richard we've seen remains Robert Lindsay, better even than Kevin Spacey and Ian McKellen). But it's not too late: just get rid of half the desks and allow the actors to connect — there is a solid and interesting production here struggling to get out.
Richard III is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 September 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complementary ticket.