You know that thing when you’re really, really looking forward to something and then, for whatever reason, you don’t enjoy it like you think you’re going to? Welcome, dear reader, to my Richard III experience.
Martin Freeman as Richard III? Yes please! That was my instant reaction when the production was announced. I got on the internet as fast as my ATG Theatre Friends membership card would take me, and there was a great choice of seats everywhere. That’s when I realised there would be stage seating too. I’ve only done that once before – almost forty years ago, when I was on a school outing to see Equus (I know, but we were very advanced). In addition to the usual stalls, circle, balcony seats in what was then the Albery theatre (now the Noel Coward), that original production also had benches on the stage, behind the action, not particularly comfortable but with a significant rake that gave an excellent view of what was going on. It was odd to be in that position, and of course, there were times when the actors played out front and not to us so you missed a bit, but my memory of that is that it wasn’t a problem, and us lot at the back certainly got our fair share of attention from the cast. And of course we were so close to the action; I recall it felt incredibly exciting; a unique experience, in fact. So, remembering all that, I plumped for the stage seating for Richard III. I was reassured by the fact that it wasn’t cheap – if it had been, I would have been suspicious, and would have upgraded us to the front stalls in the traditional layout. It’s important for me to have good seats at the theatre – if I can’t see or hear as clearly as I want, my enjoyment level absolutely plummets. But – apart from those goddam Premium Seats – those stage seating seats were top price. So they’ve got to be a quality place to sit. Haven’t they?
No. They are awful, awful seats. Just awful. From our position of BB 11 and 12, the view was extremely obstructed, although primarily not from the people in row AA, but by the furniture and props that littered the stage. This is a very heavily “furnitured” set. The Trafalgar Studio 1 stage is not particularly big, but for this production it houses two long tables and about six other office desks, stacked high with pot plants, typewriters, telephones, and so on, to give you the impression of a 1970s office. It’s set in the 1970s, by the way, so that they can make the “winter of discontent” speech have a double meaning. Otherwise, there’s no particular link made from the play to the era. The offending desk that Mrs Chrisparkle and I mainly resented was the one right in front of us, at which no one sat, no one made a phone call from the phone, no one typed on the typewriter and no one watered the pot plant. If it hadn’t been there, we could have seen something, and it wouldn’t have affected the rest of the staging one iota.
The layout and blocking of the whole production is purely for the benefit of those in the regular seats. There are a few short scenes that take place very far stage right – I don’t know if they were on or off the stage as such as we couldn’t see. “Helpfully”, every so often a member of the cast swings an old TV set in front of us in the stage seating so that we can see what’s happening (these are £52.50 seats remember, not described as obstructed view), but either they didn’t leave it in the best position for us to see or it was obstructed by the people sitting in Row AA right in front of it. So that was a waste of space.
Shakespeare’s Richard III is a cruel, vicious swine. The rather simple story is that he kills everyone who can possibly get in the way of his becoming King, and once he is king, he’s got a bunch of rebels on his hands, one of which eventually kills him. Not a nice chap. This is quite a bloody production, and we get to see him despatch all his enemies and many of his friends too. Well, that’s the case if you’re sat in the traditional seats. From our position, we could only guess that was what was going on. Clarence dies by foul means involving a fish tank, but whether he was drowned, had his throat slit or got attacked by a piranha I don’t know, as his murderers masked the action from our sight. For Rivers’ death, it was one of the pesky long tables and chairs that got in the way of our view. At one moment, he was chatting away – a bit anxiously because he knew things were not looking good – the next he was writhing on the floor, doing a very convincing death rattle, but we had no idea why. Someone must have done something to him but who? And what? Stabbed? Poisoned? Disturbed his feng shui? We couldn’t tell. Then there was the death of Lady Anne. This took place right at the front of the stage, which is physically quite a distance from the stage seating. There was some unexpected movement from Richard and suddenly she was gargling. We think a phone wire was used, but as it all took place obstructed by that sodding typewriter, don’t take my word for it. During her death, to emphasise the atmosphere of anarchy and terror, some bright spark (the director?) decided to make the lift doors continually open and shut, open and shut, like something invisible was trapped there, thus creating a terrible din that really – REALLY – got on our nerves.
To say the production suffered from gimmicks would, I think, be an understatement. A week or so before we went, I received an email saying that you might get spattered with blood if you sit in rows A-D or in AA, so dress accordingly. Excuse me? Not only do you take £52.50 from people to sit somewhere they can’t see what’s going on, you’re also going to add to their laundry bill? I could see that a member of staff was addressing the people in the front three rows before the play started, presumably giving them warning. T-shirts were provided that you could put on to protect yourself. Only a few people did. The blood spattering comes from Richard’s doing away with yet another enemy – a man who was already very blood soaked from the start of the scene, but neither Mrs C nor I could recognise him or work out who he was. Researching for this blog, I now realise it was Buckingham – couldn’t tell from our angle. Not quite sure how it happened but we saw blood spurt out from around his neck high into the air and then splash down on the front rows. A lady in the front row who had obviously declined the T-shirt rushed for paper tissues from her handbag and was looking exceedingly annoyed. But it’s all pure gimmick. There was no need for it. Just come upstage a bit and the blood spurt wouldn’t have reached the paying punters. The same disregard for the audience that fleeces us for obstructed view seats also takes it for granted that we’d love to have our clothes all blood spattered before going out for a nice meal. We’re clearly the least important people in that production.
One more thing – Seat AA8 was allocated as a wheelchair space. Now, no criticism of the wheelchair user herself, of course, but I would question the wisdom of that allocation. The lady who sat there had a very tall wheelchair. If you looked at the height of the heads along the row, everyone was more or less the same height until you came to this last lady whose head came at least a foot taller than the rest. For the lady sitting directly behind her the whole performance must have been completely invisible. I can only hope she got the ticket for free or successfully asked for her money back, because it really was stupid. Her husband, sat next to me, had to constantly duck and dive in order to see anything; and indeed, for a lengthy time in the first act, he simply decided to go to sleep as it wasn’t worth the candle. Mrs C did the same thing too – when she realised what a struggle it was going to be to follow what was going on – she just gave up. Wheelchair seating can be a sensitive issue – they’ve definitely got it wrong here.
As for the production itself, we both felt it was very chewy and hard to follow in the first act. I admit it’s not a play with which I am particularly familiar, but even so, all the gimmicks and all the furniture simply got in the way of understanding. In an attempt to recreate the 70s setting, they had nearly all the men looking like each other. They each had the same Tom Selleck moustaches, the same severe black rimmed spectacles, the same swarthy complexions. I couldn’t tell Catesby from Buckingham from Richmond. Queen Margaret kept on drifting in and out in such an ethereal way I presumed she was meant to be a ghost. The second act was easier to follow, simply because less happened, but as Mrs C pointed out, even more of what did happen happened at the front of the stage and was spoken out to the main audience so that we heard very few of the speeches. Acoustically the setup is a shocker, and when an actor is out front declaiming to the stalls, we couldn’t hear a darn thing. Technically, it wasn’t a great performance; one of the few things we could see was a fax coming through on a printer that an actor tore off and read, but with that old fashioned sound of a dot matrix printer printing away long after the fax had been torn off and whilst the printer was at a complete standstill. It could have been straight out of Noises Off; bit pathetic, really.
We thought Martin Freeman, as far as we could judge, was really good in the role. He has a very intense stare and would be a really scary boss. His timing is great, and we assume he does a great line in quirky looks and comic asides, from the sound of the audience out front enjoying them, although we couldn’t see them. There’s a very strong scene between him and the excellent Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth, when she is condemning him for murdering her sons and trying to protect her daughter from being next on the list. Miss McKee gave a great performance as the grieving and bitterly furious mother. Fortunately that was one scene we could see properly. Jo Stone-Fewings was very good as Buckingham, professionally malign to further his cause with the king-to-be, then wounded and furious when he finds he has been duped; and I thought Gabrielle Lloyd as the Duchess of York lent the production some much needed gravitas – no gimmicks, nothing sensational, just clear enunciation and proper understanding of the text.
I think the rest of the run is now pretty much sold out. If you’ve got tickets for the ordinary seats, you’ll definitely derive some enjoyment out of it. If you’ve got stage seating, I wouldn’t throw good money after bad by buying a train ticket.