An interview with Jamie Lloyd about his production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios
The interview was conducted in 2014 at the West End Live event in London, staged by the Society of London Theatre and Westminster Council.
An interview with Jamie Lloyd
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much for being with us today.
JAMIE: Not at all, not at all. My pleasure. I feel like I’m going to do a song. (laughs)
INTERVIEWER: We should do a little duet. Um… no. (laughs) So Trafalgar Transformed was an incredible success; how are you feeling about coming back for a second season?
JAMIE: I couldn’t be more excited, to be honest. I was thrilled. It was kind of beyond all expectations last season. I don’t know how many people here saw any of the three productions that we did there, but I mean, I was genuinely shocked by the response, actually, and the feedback that we got from audiences was just brilliant. So it just felt like we should absolutely give it another go and do the second season.
INTERVIEWER: The second season starts with Richard III.
INTERVIEWER: Why that play?
JAMIE: Because Martin Freeman wanted to do it. (laughs) I’d been talking to Martin about doing something, because I think he’s an amazing, amazing actor. I mean, obviously his screen work is utterly compelling, I think. And we’d been talking about doing a Shakespeare. All the things that we do at Trafalgar – it’s obviously just a few steps away from the centre of British politics down on Whitehall.
So I love the idea that everything we do has a kind of political charge, and there’s some kind – they’re all linked with some kind of social conscience, if you like. And of course, I think that Richard III is probably one of Shakespeare’s most political, and seems ever relevant, and is of course a great showcase for a brilliant, brilliant actor.
I think probably Martin’s quite unexpected casting – I know that some people have been like, “Wow, I didn’t expect him to play something like that,” because obviously he’s so lovely, and onscreen he plays affable, amiable good guys, doesn’t he? But I think he was very keen to do something other than that, and he’s certainly very capable of doing that. In rehearsal, he’s been seriously – actually, very impressive and impressively dark. Very, very, very scary, I have to say.
INTERVIEWER: Was it Martin that came first, before the choice of play?
JAMIE: What I do, at Trafalgar, is I make a list of plays that I want to do, and Richard III was up there right at the top of the plays I’ve always wanted to do. And then when I was talking to Martin, it made sense, and I said, “Well, what about this one?” He sort of leapt at the chance to do it.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that we know Martin Freeman best for things like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Watson in Sherlock – very good people. Did you take any convincing that he could do Richard III? Did you see something in him that made you think, “Yeah”?
JAMIE: It’s interesting, because yeah, they are good guys, aren’t they? But there’s something incredibly intriguing about his serene roles in that he’s sort of – they’re often very buttoned-up characters. They often give very little away about themselves. And what’s intriguing about that is that I always look at his screen performances – certainly in Sherlock, and definitely in Fargo, at the moment – where there’s this volcanic well of emotion going on underneath, and a sort of extraordinary, I think, a kind of anger underneath these characters that doesn’t ever get a release.
He’s very good at playing men with secrets, and of course, Richard III has a lot of secrets. And I love the idea that rather than some kind of big, grandstanding, big bold Shakespearean performance right from the outset, that you’re not seeing someone who’s destined to be a leader right from the beginning, but you’re seeing someone that’s growing into that role.
In many ways, I see Richard III as being someone – he’s born with a deformity; he’s been shunned by his mother, literally from birth, because she’s given birth to a monster. So there’s a sort of sense, I think, that if you live with that kind of situation, that there’s a wound in there, in that man. Which perhaps goes some way to explaining the actions that he carries out. And I love the idea that you see that emerge gradually.
INTERVIEWER: Are we getting a classic hunchback Richard III? Or is it – how are you playing that?
JAMIE: Yes, he has got a hump. He had a hump fitting the other day, which was very successful. And he’s got a withered arm as well. I have to keep reminding him not to use it, though, because he sort of has it down here, and then occasionally he’ll want to – there’s a moment where he picks up a decapitated head, and he wants to use it, and I remind him that this is a dead arm, so he’s got to do it one-handed and pick it up by the hair.
INTERVIEWER: It’s very difficult to pick up decapitated heads with one hand.
JAMIE: Yeah, I find it difficult all the time, actually.
INTERVIEWER: Your Macbeth, in the first season, it’s a very grimy, post-apocalyptic Macbeth. How have you chosen to set Richard III? Can you say?
JAMIE: Ah, you’ll have to wait and see.
INTERVIEWER: No hints at all?
JAMIE: Well, all right. It’s hard to say this without it sounding unbearably gimmicky. That’s the important thing. I mean, all you can ever do, I think, as a text-based director, is to have some kind of imaginative response to the words on the page. So everything, believe it or not – and the same with our Macbeth – did come as a direct response from Shakespeare’s word. Nothing was imposed upon it.
I’m a great believer in being adventurous aesthetically and being very bold with the kind of production that you make, but as long as it’s tethered to the text, I think you can get away with anything. And as long as you’re telling the story. That’s the important thing. Because especially at Trafalgar, we’re opening up the theatre to a huge wave of people that have never been to the theatre before, let alone seen a Shakespeare play and let alone seen Macbeth or Richard III. So you’ve got to be clear with the narrative, but that doesn’t mean that you can be any less inventive.
But the really tricky thing about Richard III is that it’s really difficult to understand, and when I’ve seen it, I’ve often been quite daunted by it myself. I have to admit, I have not understood every single word, and partly because there’s just so many characters. There’s a ridiculous amount of characters, many of whom come on for one scene, or they have a few lines and then they go off again, and you never see them again. So it’s quite hard to grasp onto those people, quite hard to form definitive opinions or create any kind of relationship with those characters with the audience.
So I’ve stripped those down. There’s less characters in it. Still a big cast – I mean, there’s 19 people, which is the biggest cast we’ve had at Trafalgar, which is an ambitious cast for a studio theatre. But less characters, and what we’ve done is kind of conflated some of those characters. So it might be that one particular role takes on the lines from others, and that makes it very interesting.
The character of Catesby, for instance, becomes quite intriguing. At one point, he’s someone’s confidant, and in the next moment, he’s their murderer. And that’s really because they’re two different characters. (laughs) But it makes it quite psychologically interesting, that switch.
INTERVIEWER: I’m going to directly quote a tweet at you, I think. “There’s more death and carnage in Richard III than there is in your Macbeth and Duchess of Malfi put together.” Yeah?
INTERVIEWER: Normally, Richard III, I think I’m right in saying, you don’t get to see – it’s all offstage.
INTERVIEWER: Am I giving away any huge secrets? I’m hoping not, if it’s already been tweeted.
INTERVIEWER: Are we seeing more onstage action? A decapitated head?
JAMIE: Yeah, we are. We are. (laughs) Recently I was at – I don’t think, it’s certainly not just me that’s interested in this at all, but there’s a company – I think they’re in Plymouth – called Pigs Might Fly, who make the best blood in the business. It’s amazingly, scarily real.
And we used a lot of it on Macbeth, and it inspired – it has meant that that particular brand of blood has become very, very popular. So they’ve actually increased their output by three times or something. I think the recent production of Titus Andronicus at the Globe used a lot of it – and of course, that’s the famous production where people faint with the blood and gore.
So there’s something in the air, isn’t there, with Let the Right One In and various others. Obviously there’s a big bloodbath at the end of the recent View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. So there’s something zeitgeisty about the use of blood, which is kind of interesting. And in a way, that tweet was a bit of an experiment to see how people would react, and of course, it was amazing to say “Oh, that’s amazing.” Like, “Is it wrong that I’m so gleeful about that?” or whatever it might be, that people kind of got off on that.
Yeah, there’s a kind of excitement, bizarrely, about stage violence at the moment. And we’ve certainly been a part of that at Trafalgar. I personally think that it’s quite necessary for Richard III to really get under the skin of the characters in terms of how horrific the actions are that happen in the play. And as you say, normally they’re offstage, and you very rarely see anyone die onstage, die a brutal death. But that might – it could mean that you don’t really get a sense of how horrific Richard III is being, how bloody his regime is.
And I think there’s something really important about – effectively, Richard III is about life under a dictator, and I think if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to give some kind of essence of what it might be like on a visceral level. So yeah, it’s exciting for audiences, but also it’s pretty unpleasant to watch.
And I really couldn’t do that without both Pigs Might Fly and Kombat Kate, who is the best fight director in theatre. Kate Waters, Kombat Kate with two ‘Ks.’ She does everything. She creates fights that are plausible, and that means they go on for a bit longer.
INTERVIEWER: You had obviously one Shakespeare in your first season, one in this season; what do you think it is about Shakespeare that we keep going back to his works and finding something new in them each time?
JAMIE: I think it’s partly because we’ve grown accustomed to being able to reinterpret them and to create different worlds with them, to create different atmospheres with them. I guess because he’s not alive, it makes it easier for the directors to interfere and to make those choices. When you’ve got a living playwright, they’re often obviously protective of their own work, and often the estate of some dead writers are quite particular about what you do.
But yeah, we’re being obviously incredibly bold and brave with his work, and I think that’s how it should be. And talking about View from the Bridge, it’s great that there are other directors now that are not being as reverential with other writers as well. Because I think, again, as long as the initial stimulus is from the text, I think you can get away with anything, and I don’t see that there’s anything wrong in that.