Martin Freeman shows his nasty side in a tight, taut, chilling Richard III

Ben Dowell enjoys a bloody creep-fest as the Sherlock star excels as Shakespeare's villain in a mature stage performance which skilfully teases out Richard's sadism and misogyny

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Martin Freeman shows his nasty side in a tight, taut, chilling Richard III
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Some of our greatest actors have taken on the role of Shakespeare’s cruellest, nastiest English King. Laurence Olivier, Anthony Sher, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen.... and now Sherlock’s Martin Freeman, who here shows he can do base and vile Plantaganet King with the best of them. 

Of course, TV viewers used to him playing likable chaps like The Office's Tim or John Watson in Sherlock have seen the actor cranking up his unpleasant side in the recent Channel 4 drama import Fargo, where his Lester Nygaard gradually moves across ten episodes from put-upon loser to cold and calculating killer with chilling ease. Here, of course, Shakespeare's Richard III reveals himself to be a calculating, murderous plotter from the outset – and Freeman does not disappoint.

It was quite a funny in-joke of director Jamie Lloyd's to play the action just after 1979 and the Winter of Discontent, given this play's famous opening line. What Lloyd imagines is a Britain exhausted by civil war now facing a military coup (having drawn on the well-sourced claim of a real-life MI5 plot against the Labour Government of the era).

So we are taken to a grimy bunker, depressingly redolent of the awful decade. Clunky phones, kipper collars, lots of smoking, whisky slugging, cheap scuffed linoleum floors, faulty lifts, tinny music in the background, curled sandwiches and uncomfortable desks.... Yes. We get the picture. This also means that there is little room to move on stage, but this Richard has the freedom of an amoral mind to roam around in, calculating all the time and bumping off rivals until he ascends the throne.

Freeman's talent lies in creating something frighteningly ordinary about his villainy. He has a hump, OK, and a hand he cannot use, but he is not the physical monster of some productions and moves about his wicked business with a kind of blank indifference to his actions which is somehow even more chilling. But what this production also succeeds in doing is to bring to real, horrible life a palpable sense of the cancerous impact of his villainy on those around him, a real sense of the destruction he wreaks on lives.

Maggie Steed’s matriarch Queen Margaret is an ever-present reminder of the internecine strife he has brought to the kingdom; she never leaves the action, sitting on the sidelines, watching as her curses in the first act are realised. Her tirade is brilliantly done.

There is also plenty of gore and audiences are not spared some of the horrors. Clarence is drowned (not in a vat of wine as he is in the source text but in a tacky-looking fish tank) in a nastily violent scene. And instead of despatching his wife (Lauren O'Neil's Lady Anne) off-stage, Freeman’s Richard pursues her round the governmental bunker and strangles her with studied cruelty and more than a hint of enjoyment. There is in this moment a release of the pent-up misogyny which Freeman also teases out of the character.

Another clue to his inner life is a brilliant moment when one of the young Princes in the Tower joshingly makes fun of his Uncle’s deformity in a scene of embarrassed jollity. But it is the cold hard stare that Richard gives him that points to what he is thinking. I will get you, you hear him thinking, and of course he does.

Freeman's cheeky asides to the audience also point to the enjoyment he takes in his work and even his final battle cry for a "horse, a horse my Kingdom for my horse" comes out almost as a joke cry for the kind of offstage support he knows is not coming. He is, at the very last, cynically unfeeling even about himself.

This is a lean and taut production, noisy and fast moving and much shorter than most (line for line Richard III is actually the longest Shakespeare play) with much of the flab cut out. But it succeeds in creating a convincing sense of a nation in chaos without losing our awareness of how this Richard infects his world, poisoning the minds and hacking the bodies of those around him. My hunch is that this clever retelling is going to be a hit...