Saturday 16th August 2014, Trafalgar Studios
This week’s theatrical adventure was a grand anticlimax. You win some. You lose some. As you know, I was scheduled to continue in my quest to ‘collect them all’ – ‘them’ being theatrical appearances by the illustrious cast of Sherlock. In March, I saw Mark Gatiss (the marvellous Mycroft) in Coriolanus. In May, I saw Moriarty himself, Andrew Scott, in Birdland. Next year, the infamous Mr Cumberbatch is on the cards. But on Saturday, it was time for Dr Watson, Martin Freeman, to present his take on Richard III.
The day started well. At a frankly ungodly hour, my oftentimes theatre buddy, Jacqueline, and I succeeded in dragging our friend, Jackie, out of bed and onto the bus to London. Our aim was to reach the big smoke nice and early, in order to visit Highgate Cemetery. (And yes, once again, my blog diverts into some cemetery tourism!). Highgate, founded in 1839, is probably London’s most famous graveyard. It’s one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries built in the Victorian era on the outskirts of the city to prevent overcrowding. Over 170,000 people are buried at Highgate and it is well-known for its architecture and for its notable residents. In the nineteenth century, Highgate quickly gained a reputation as a fashionable place in which to be laid to rest. As the twentieth century wore on, the cemetery fell into disrepair and suffered considerable vandalism. In 1975, it was rescued when local people founded the Friends of Highgate Cemetery in order to ensure its preservation.
|Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue|
The cemetery is divided into two. The older West Cemetery is only accessible via a guided tour. It boasts numerous fascinating monuments and architectural features, including an Egyptian-style Avenue, the so-called Circle of Lebanon with burial chambers surrounding a huge Cedar tree, and terraced catacombs. The tour was hugely interesting. Our enthusiastic guide outlined the history of the cemetery, explaining Victorian funeral fashions and introducing us to some of Highgate’s most intriguing residents, including the poisoned Russian secret-serviceman, Alexander Litvinenko, and Adam Worth, the master-criminal who inspired the character of Moriarty. (Got to have a Sherlock reference somewhere!)
The East Cemetery is less architecturally striking, although it does house probably the cemetery’s biggest names, George Eliot and Karl Marx. Visitors are free to wander. Marx’s huge memorial presides over what could be best named, ‘Communist Corner’ – a collection of graves of his followers and admirers, including the historian, Eric Hobsbawm.
|The headstone reads 'The glorious SHEILA GISH'|
From a thespian perspective, several stalwarts of the theatre are buried at Highgate. I visited the graves of Sir Ralph Richardson and his wife, Meriel, Corin Regrave, Sheila Gish, Antony Shaffer, and Max Wall.
One feels that Highgate’s stories are endless. The Friends of the cemetery have worked hard to engage visitors with tales of the people who are buried there while ensuring that the cemetery remains a beautiful and peaceful final resting place.
Once we had wandered around Highgate, we trekked over to the West End for some much-needed refreshment. Fed and watered, we popped by my favourite theatre bookshop, David Drummond in Cecil Court, where I bought some goodies - more about those in a future post! We then toddled over to Trafalgar Studios to collect our tickets for the evening’s show. The matinee was just exiting. Time for some more Sherlock spotting! Among the crowds was Holmes and Watson’s neighbour, Mrs Hudson – in real life, Una Stubbs. This was the second time, Jackie, Jacqueline and I had run into Una. We’d clocked her in the audience at Coriolanus too. She too must have been attempting to ‘collect them all’. I also spotted Claire Skinner (probably best known as the mum in Outnumbered). She didn’t look too happy. A bad omen...
A few minutes later, Jacqueline returned from the box office with the shell-shocking news that Martin Freeman was unable to perform that night! Richard III would be without its star.
Now, I go to a lot of theatre. I am fully aware that to the well-enlightened mind, this should not have been a tragedy. I am fully aware that the theatre’s management cannot guarantee anything. There’s not much a theatre can do if their headliner has caught the flu or ate a dodgy whelk. That is, of course, what an understudy is for. The show must go on. I am also fully aware that to the culturally superior, ‘the play’s the thing’ and that I should be led by the script, not the cast list.
Yes, yes... but we all know that’s not really the case. Look who's all over the posters! Only last week, the Barbican’s Hamlet did not become the quickest selling production in history simply because punters were eager to hear the tale of the Prince of Denmark. Would those who flocked to see the National Theatre’s famous production of Othello, back in 1964, have given up their evenings so readily if the Moor had been played by an unknown? Theatrical runs bask in the glow of superstardom and struggle in its absence. In his autobiography, Christopher Plummer recalls the demise of the North American premiere of The Royal Hunt of the Sun after he was hospitalised with a blood clot:
‘[The production] staggered on for a while, but its producers refused to pay for a “name” actor to replace me and with just my understudy valiantly carrying on night after night, good as he was, there was no “draw” to keep it running, so in a matter of weeks this gorgeous production closed.’ (In Spite of Myself (2010), p.429).
When Elizabeth Taylor was unable to perform during the infamous run of Private Lives - her reunion with Richard Burton - the Lunt-Fontanne theatre was shut down until she recovered. Nobody, it was reasoned, had bought tickets to see the understudy.
All of this is to illustrate that when news of Martin Freeman’s indisposition reached our ears, we were naturally disappointed. We had come to see the man himself and were keen to see his interpretation of the Bard’s great villain. Nevertheless, understanding that there was not much to be done, we still went to see the show.
I did not enjoy this production. I do not think that this was simply because of Martin Freeman’s absence. His understudy, Philip Cumbus, who usually plays Richmond, gave a perfectly assured performance. It was more to do with the staging. Jamie Lloyd has chosen to locate this Richard III in the 1970s, just after the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’. He seeks to draw on the period’s deep political divisions and rumours of a planned aristocratic coup against Wilson’s Labour government. The set itself looked like something from an episode of Life on Mars – a 1970s office with typewriters, Bakelite phones, and henchmen in tank tops and flares. Queen Margaret, dressed like Maggie Thatcher, shouts her curses to the accompaniment of flickering lights and pyrotechnics (the result of a power cut, perhaps?). Richard strangles Anne with a telephone cord to the tune of cheesy elevator music.
I am unashamed to say that I just didn’t get it. Linking the political feuds of the 1970s to Gloucester’s attempts towards the throne requires rather too much of leap and, I think, too much prior knowledge on the part of the audience. It was only when I read my programme afterwards that things became much clearer! So the class war explained the (rather dodgy) regional accents adopted by some of the cast!
The play itself felt rather underpowered. Clarence was drowned in a bloody fish tank. Queen Elizabeth was strapped, kicking and screaming, to a chair. Yet, strangely, there didn’t seem to be much energy between the actors. Philip Cumbus seemed far too restrained as Richard. Looking at the reviews of Freeman’s performance, it seems that this is the production’s intent rather than Cumbus’ own choice. His Richard could be cruel and calculating and sometimes violent, but he lacked any glittering malevolence – the strange charm and charisma which renders the audience (and indeed Richard's followers) both repulsed and transfixed. Some of the speeches were played for laughs. ‘A horse, a horse’ became a last-minute joke to the audience when Richard was facing the barrel of a gun.
At some times, the use of music drowned the words of the actors. At others, their own elocution left something to be desired. I had trouble understanding Maggie Steed at Queen Margaret. Yet, the special effects continued apace. There were bloodied heads, bangs, crashes, flashing torches, blinking lights, flapping elevator doors, and even toilet flushes. As Jacqueline put it, it was oddly like a ‘Carry On’ film in parts: ‘Carry On Dick.’
The reaction of the audience was mixed. The couple next to me left at the interval. Yet I overhead other audience members remarking how much they had enjoyed the show. Mr Cumbus was given a warm round of applause and (by some) a standing ovation.
Back in Oxford, we discovered that Martin Freeman had been off for most of last week. Ought we to have been warned? We had been told by the Box Office on Saturday that they had no information regarding refunds or the possible re-booking of tickets later in the run, once Martin was back on his feet. Instead, Box Office staff gave out slips of paper with the email address of the producers. If Martin had been away all week, surely they ought to have had more information than this?
And so the question of star-power rages on. What will be the result of dropping the producers a line, I wonder? Is there anything they can do? Clearly, they’re not obliged to come up with a solution for disappointed ticket holders. Any Martin Freeman fan, whether travelling from Canada or Canada Water, should have known that the theatre could not guarantee his appearance. Yet, will the producers acknowledge that many ticket sales for the production were made only because of its star? People do, after all, like to see a range of actors' interpretations of Shakespeare's greatest roles.
|Richard III will be played by Laurence who?|
I did a twitter search yesterday. Martin Freeman was back on stage:
Now is the winter of my discontent