...but Richard III is such a Nice Guy!

[Content Note: violence against women, misogyny]

A couple of weeks ago, I caught Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in London, starring Martin Freeman in the title role. Directed by Jaimie Lloyd, it’s an often witty, often disturbing production set mainly in a 1970's era political office/bunker. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a feminist production, it’s one that puts misogyny firmly at the heart of Richard’s viciousness.

From the beginning, Martin Freeman plays Richard as a clever, charming, and utterly inhumane manipulator. His “everyman” persona is here turned into the funny fellow that we just can’t believe would do those awful things, at least in the beginning. The way Freeman breaks up the lines, finding a way to insert sarcastic or ironic humor to Richard's insincerity, makes for the funniest Richard III I’ve ever really seen before. He’s so witty. He’s so wry. And that Nice Guy ™ persona made him, for me, an extraordinarily chilling villain.

I’ve always found Richard III’s supposed seductions a little hard to buy. He’s supposed to woo Anne Neville as she grieves over the body of her dead husband and, while I’ve seen productions where it works dramatically, it never feels emotionally right to me.

But Freeman’s Richard, the Nice Guy, isn’t a grand seducer. He’s really asking Anne, more or less, for a pity fuck. A Nice Guy who’s just so darn vulnerable. A Nice Guy who’s made dramatic gestures (okay, in the form of war and murder) all to impress her. Doesn't he deserve a chance? Isn't he entitled to one?

Yeah, you know. That guy.

Lauren O’Neil’s Lady Anne struck me as put off balance by Richard, not sexually drawn to him. It’s a reaction that many women have had to the Nice Guy ™. You reach a point where you don’t want to hurt his feelings, even when you’re still angry with him. Where you decide that "to be fair" he needs a chance. And that vulnerability is exactly what he’s counting on. Maybe he's sincere about his attraction; maybe he's cynical. It doesn't really matter to his victim, who's now put in the position of the bad guy if she refuses to give in to his pleas for attention.

Writing in The Telegraph, Charles Spencer complains about this aspect of Freeman’s performance: “…his seduction of Lady Anne, which is normally so creepily erotic, has hardly a spark of sex about it.” Well, yeah. "Creepy” isn’t erotic. It’s CREEPY. It’s not seductive, but it does work sometimes as technique to throw a vulnerable woman off-balance and make her easier to victimize.

Played like this, Richard’s later decision to cold-bloodedly murder Anne comes as the logical conclusion to an abuser’s grooming. No, there’s nothing erotic in their interactions, from beginning to violent end (an end which is played out, terrifyingly, gruesomely, on the stage). The audience is forced to admit that the Nice Guy™ we’ve been chuckling along with is really a violent, murderous fuckhead.

Similarly, instead of Richard trying to seductively charm Queen Elizabeth (Gina McKee) into marrying her daughter to him, Freeman’s Richard is straightforward. His minions tape her to an office chair and force her to listen. At this point in the play, Richard’s villainy has become obvious to everyone, and I’ve always found the idea that Elizabeth responds to him even a little very weird—he has, after all, just had her sons murdered. Here, the physical restraint and McKee’s well-played terror make it very clear: she is simply telling Richard what he wants to hear in order to escape and safeguard her last remaining child. Only Richard’s massive sense of entitlement allows him to believe otherwise.

In the production notes, director Jaimie Lloyd references some current events that affected rehearsals. Among these are Elliot Rodger’s horrific crimes, which he links to Richard’s mindset: “…since I cannot prove a lover/to entertain these fair well-spoken days/I am determined to prove a villain.” In the end that’s what made it so scary-real to me: I’ve known this Richard III. He’s come on to me, he’s appealed to my pity, he’s made me uncomfortable, and he’s damn scary when rejected. And his violence needs to be taken seriously, even if he is such a very, very Nice Guy.

[Note: This post is not intended as a full review, nor as a full discussion of the gender politics in the script/this production.]

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