Martin Freeman as Richard III: understated or charisma free?

Martin Freeman as Richard III

Bouquets and brickbats for Hobbit star Freeman as he tries his hand at being sinister

LAST UPDATED AT 13:57 ON Thu 10 Jul 2014

The new West End production of Shakespeare's Richard III, which has opened at London's Trafalgar Studios, has a twist: director Jamie Lloyd has transported the action to the late 1970s, with the Shakespearean tale of murder and manipulation taking place in sinister corridors of power.

That, and the performance of Hobbit and Office star Martin Freeman has divided the critics. Writing in The Times, Dominic Maxwell bombards him with praise, describing him as "clipped, quick and clear", as well as "playful, self-aware and intimate". Freeman's charisma "snares the attention from the off", says Maxwell.

Yet the Daily Telegraph identifies a "gaping hole" where Freeman's "charisma ought to be". His seduction of Lady Anne, "which is normally so creepily erotic, has hardly a spark of sex about it", complains Charles Spencer, lending Freeman the air of "a boy sent to do a man's work".

The Guardian echoes The Times in lauding the production's "ingenuity" but mourns that "in the end, ingenuity is not quite enough". The overall production, says Michael Billington, is "physically constricted" and "misses the sweep and grandeur of Shakespeare's chronicle".

Billington is not the only critic to focus on issues wider than the presence of the Hobbit star. The Financial Times's Sarah Hemming argues that although early publicity for the show has centred on the "liberal amounts of blood on display", it is in fact "the sinister combination of twinkly lift music and efficient murder that really chills".

Digital Spy zooms in on the set itself, which it finds so "fussy and limiting" that it leaves the audience "itching for the actors to throw the desks and never-used electric typewriters aside and create some breathing space".

Yet ultimately, the attention keeps returning to Freeman. The Independent warns that despite his "highly intelligent, calculatedly understated performance", the lead "doesn't radiate a sufficiently dangerous sense of unpredictability".

It is left to Variety to imagine the relief that Freeman must feel to move beyond his "on-screen stock-in-trade" of "benign thoughtfulness" and sink his teeth into a role that is more sinister.

But does his bite make the earth move for reviewer David Benedict? Very much so: he says Freeman "nails the self-satisfied psychopathic side with tiny, well-placed bursts of self-satisfied humour". Bravo to Freeman, says Benedict, and his performance which "crowns a gutsy, impassioned production". · 

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