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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Martin Freeman as Shakespeare's Richard III

Great news!

Martin Freeman will play Richard III!

He will be on stage later this year at Trafalgar Studios in London

I am thrilled that he is doing some Shakespeare!

I fully expected that he would at some point in his career.

But I didn’t expect him to do Richard III — that’s brilliant!

It is a very shrewd choice for him, since the play is very funny, and he is such a master at comedy.

I have written quite a bit about Richard III here, and the fact that I have not seen one actor fully discover the comedy in the play. Too often, the play is treated as a dark historical drama, when in fact it is more of a send-up or parody of that kind of play.

It’s meant to be played as if all of the other characters are stuck in a strait-laced drama, and Richard III is the odd man out — his character is above and beyond all of them. He violates all the rules of the play they are stuck in, and they are powerless to stop him.

In that regard, Martin Freeman is perfectly cast. He seems to specialize in playing the character who can stand inside and outside what is happening to the rest of the characters.

He is superb at expressing himself with just a look, and without words. I can think of very few actors who do it as well.

Most actors portray Richard III as a bad guy, who is charismatic. But there are more layers to him waiting to be discovered.

Laurence Olivier didn’t discover them. Nor did Ian McKellen. 

But their performances were part of a tradition of playing Richard that goes back a long way, and while there is value in that tradition, it is not the portrayal of Richard that Shakespeare intended.

The best I have seen is Mark Rylance. His Richard was pathetic and charismatic, often begging the audience for sympathy, then later acting defiantly to the audience, and all the while he was running rings around the rest of the characters on stage. He was very funny. But Mr. Rylance still didn’t exploit the character as fully as he could have.

The best Richards I have seen are the imitations, like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Ian Richardson in House of Cards, and Kevin Spacey in the new House of Cards.

But what makes this opportunity so great for Martin Freeman, is that he has the benefit of being on a stage. The energy of performing in front of a crowd of people is lost on screen. It is to his advantage to do it on stage. 

What is special about the Richard III character is the fun in having him build a relationship with the audience, and making them complicit in his crimes.

That complicity is the magic of the play — and the audience can be both fascinated by such an evil man, and fascinated by their fascination.

I hope that however this production of the play is staged, they make it as intimate as possible. The best stage productions are the ones that allow Richard to get close to the audience, get inside their heads, and create that magic.

If there is any actor who can discover the comedy in this role, and in the play, and create a new sort of magic with Richard III, it is Martin Freeman.

I can’t wait to see it!


David B. Schajer

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