Six years ago, in his second year as Artistic Director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey took on the role of Richard II, directed by Trevor Nunn. The production was well received by most, but I remember it as one of the weakest stagings of a Shakespeare play that I’ve seen. Over-reliant upon poorly-executed gimmickry, with Spacey competent yet oddly colourless at the centre, the production didn’t do the play justice, for me, instead seeming to bleed most of the poetry and tragedy out of it.
Happily, Spacey’s latest, highly-anticipated foray into Shakespeare’s Histories has, I think, yielded much more successful and dynamic results. Collaborating with Sam Mendes for the first time since American Beauty (1999), in what will be the last production in the transatlantic Bridge Project, Spacey takes on the title role in Richard III and delivers an assured performance in a very strong production. This Richard doesn’t come close to matching Propeller’s current staging of the play for inventiveness, exuberance and sheer bloody bravura. But it remains an intelligent and persuasive production, perhaps the strongest I’ve seen during Spacey’s reign at the Old Vic. The following remarks were written after the third preview of the play on the 21st June.
Mendes first directed Richard III for the RSC 20 years ago with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. And, from the bits and pieces I’ve read about it, he seems to have recycled a fair few ideas from that production here.* For the most part, they’re good ideas, though. The first thing we see upon entering the auditorium is the word “Now,” projected in white on a black screen: a suggestion, if ever there was one, that the production is aiming for contemporary relevance.
As it turns out, though, the caption is less an allusion to the production’s temporal setting than a pointer to the first word of Richard’s famous opening soliloquy. For, although clearly contemporary, the world of this production is pretty non-specific. Catherine Zuber’s stylish costumes suggest England in the 1940s or 50s (sometimes earlier and sometimes later), while Tom Piper’s effective design opts for minimalism, the stage-space expanding and contracting as it economically conveys the various locations, and giving the production a stark intimacy and an epic grandeur as required. Titles like the opening “Now” appear throughout the production, mostly serving to introduce characters at the beginning of scenes: my companion deemed this a somewhat patronising device, but I think it’s fairly effective, helping to focus a play that can seem diffuse and cluttered on a first viewing. Although the production is long (it runs for 3 hours 15 minutes), with few cuts, it maintains fluidity, momentum and drive throughout, with dramatic scene changes underscored by excellent sound and music (heavy on the drumming) from Gareth Fry, Mark Bennett and Curtis Moore.
There’s the occasional quirky touch, such as the presentation of ‘The Citizens’ as chattering commuters, while Richard’s fake-reluctant acceptance of the crown is the most elaborately staged set-piece, becoming something of a comic crowd-pleaser. But mostly Mendes avoids attention-grabbing gimmicks here, instead choosing to present the play's big scenes in as uncluttered a manner as possible. His approach carries over to the stagings of the murders, which, with the exception of the killing of Clarence, are handled very discreetly, contrasting sharply with the extravagant Saw-ish theatrics that are such a distinctive feature of Propeller’s production.
The sparse approach allows the actors plenty of space. From the moment we first see him, slumped bitterly in a chair before images of Edward IV’s coronation, Spacey’s Richard rivets attention. Hump-backed, left foot twisted inwards, every inch the “bottled spider” of Queen Margaret’s description, the role allows Spacey scope to exercise his special gift for communicating malevolence. And yet there’s nothing grotesque or excessive about this Richard; rather he cuts an all-too-human figure. There have been more insidiously charismatic, more sexually suggestive interpretations than this but few that have dug much more deeply into the character’s self-loathing, his profound sense of isolation, or his misogyny. (A few twists on a few key lines soon establish this Richard as one with clearly unresolved Mummy Issues.)
As in Richard II, Spacey uses the slightly affected mid-Atlantic accent that he seems to find appropriate for speaking Shakespeare, but he’s much more vocally expressive in this production. He takes the soliloquies very fast, as a rush of thoughts and ideas and impressions, and carries the audience with him every step of the way. He develops a nice line in ironic humour, too, but the performance also has its startling moments, from the sudden ferocity with which he turns on Jack Ellis’s Hastings to the awed shock tinged with anger with which he repeats “on me!” following his wooing of Anne. Indeed, the seduction-of-Anne sequence is particularly inspired here: Spacey and the excellent Annabel Scholey play the scene not simply as a war-of-words but as an intensely physical encounter that leaves Richard gasping with relief and disbelief, not quite able to believe his success. (Spacey makes the scene a transitional moment in which Richard really becomes aware of his power and potential to manipulate.) By the time Richard is writhing, bloodied, on the floor yelping “My kingdom for a horse!” Spacey’s performance has traced a clear and compelling arc. It’s a distinguished interpretation, and a great achievement for the actor.
Surrounding Spacey’s star turn is a strong ensemble of British and American performers, from Chandler Williams as a deeply sympathetic Clarence to Chuk Iwuji’s well-drawn Buckingham; Iwuji succeeds in making sense of the character’s journey from co-conspirator to doomed rebel. Broadway veteran Maureen Anderman brings wonderful feeling and intensity to her scenes as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, while as a ratty-haired, bag-lady-ish Margaret, Gemma Jones is goosebump-inducingly good, wonderful to listen to as she delivers curses and prophecies. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know.” Jones’s Margaret functions here as just such a figure of power and knowledge, and, by making the character a ghostly presence in the latter stages of the production, Mendes succeeds in turning her into the heroine of the play.
Unsurprisingly for the preview stage, a few performances lack a bit of definition. Haydn Gwynne will no doubt dig deeper into Queen Elizabeth’s grief and strength as the run progresses, and Nathan Darrow’s Richmond is sadly bland, although that’s probably due to Shakespeare’s characterisation as much as the actor’s performance. And a couple of scenes still need work: the Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, in particular, doesn’t yet pack the punch it should. Even so, the production is in terrific shape already and is sure to only get stronger as time goes on. If you only have space in your life for one Richard III this month, then I’d say make it Propeller’s. But Mendes’s production is a thoroughly involving and gripping account of the play, and (in more ways than one) it ends the Bridge Project initiative on a definite high.
Running time: 3 hours 15 mins. The production runs until 11 September 2011 at the Old Vic. It will also tour internationally – taking a break from London for the Athens and Epidaurus Festival (29-31 July), and then post-London, visiting Hong Kong Arts Festival (16-18 September), Spain’s Centro Niemeyer (28 September-1 October) and Singapore Repertory Theatre (17-26 November) – before opening the at BAM, where it concludes from 10 January to 4 March 2012. Additional international 2011 dates to be announced.
*I’d dearly love to hear from anyone who remembers the 1992 production and can confirm what Mendes changes and retains here. In particular, as Richard makes his way to the throne for the first time, doesn’t Spacey recycle a moment that's gone down as a classic SRB moment?