Richard III, Old Vic | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Richard III, Old Vic
Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey hit hard with Shakespeare's early experiment in history
It's the hard-hitting hoedown of high summer. Old Vic supremo Kevin Spacey being reunited with director Sam Mendes for the first time since 1999's American Beauty was bound to make 'em whoop, and their new production of Richard III doesn't disappoint. It's big, bellicose and full of braggadocio, as it should be: the play works best as a series of melodramatic blasts - Gloucester's opening soliloquy, his wooing of Lady Anne, Queen Margaret's curses, Gloucester's mock reluctance at becoming king, his nightmare and defeat as King Richard at Bosworth. In between, it's full of experimental and sometimes rather flabby dramatic writing which no actor playing the hunchback usurper can ever quite defeat. Not even Maestro Spacey. But he looks amazing and all the bangs go off as they should.
Mendes has gone for high-definition set pieces, no better illustrated than in Act III, scene 7 when we watch Spacey, concealed behind a wall of doors (the set is made up of three sides of them), on a screen, in real time, pretending to be holy, pretending he's not good enough to become king after Edward IV's death - the only person in the play, dying, whom, hapless Anne aside, Gloucester doesn't murder in order to become king.
Other nice moments include a scene in which fedora-hatted citizenry discuss further likely insurrection over the evening paper and hanging on to commuter-train straps; an enthronement scene in which drummers, all characters in the play, presage Richard's lumbering towards, and ungainly collapse before, two golden chairs, Anne in one of them, with, behind, a huge blow-up fascist portrait of Spacey; and the hoisting right at the end of the slain Richard into mid-air by his feet, to swing for several minutes like a carcass in an abattoir - not uncourageous for a stocky man about to turn 52.
That's to give nothing away. The sprawling drama can only end in Richard's death - history of course demanded it of the playwright, too - and it's not original to observe that by then it's run out of steam. Nor is it extreme to suggest that the best of the play is done by the end of Act I. Even then, patience has been worn thin by having to witness a playwright working out "how to do" a murder on stage - of Clarence, Gloucester's older brother (Chandler Williams here) - rather than just crisply getting on with it. (Think how vast an advance had been made by the despatching of Lady Macduff and progeny, in about a minute, some 14 years later.) But let's not get hung up on how lesser a Richard this is than, say, the second tetralogy's - ie, Richard II, also one of the most hauntingly lyrical plays ever written.
Mendes provides a visually arresting, sonically sharp, sartorially unfussy reading. Richard is surrounded by slick-suited lackeys and spooks. Evocation of Libya-like implosion and militarism is plainly intended. Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji), a lithe kingmaker undone by his own power-hungry loyalty, is a cross between baptist energiser and Fela Kuti. The women are great: Annabel Scholey (pictured right) sexy and defiant as Anne but ultimately an abused ghost; Haydn Gwynne angular and charismatic as the utterly defeated Queen Elizabeth; white-haired Maureen Anderman refined as the Duchess of York; and Gemma Jones is particularly striking in her bag-lady, unresting, almost Beckettian rendering of Margaret (Henry VI's widow, in case it's getting confusing, which it is). It's gutsily innovative, too, to have the two soon-to-be murdered princes played by women (Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely).
For Spacey, this is a great moment in the London light, dark though his character be. His left leg is bent and calipered, his left hand - denoting congenital abbreviation - stuck in a black leather glove. You never quite know if his cane is going to sprout, like some Bond villain's, an evil spike, though he does use it quite disgustingly to poke in triumph Hastings's severed head, presented to him in a hat box. From the moment he delivers his first speech, in a chair, after a party, paper crown on his head, he fills the part with physical and psychological plenitude, and has us watching and listening - most traces of his (naturally resonant) American gone - with fascination.
But is he dangerous enough? In a revealing moment in a programme Q&A, Spacey says he's "stopped drinking, smoking, everything to dedicate [himself] to this character". I rather wish he hadn't. If there's anything missing from his performance, it's decadence, a whiff of sweaty corruption and moral disintegration - of the charnel house; but these are small lacks in a full evening. Spacey's obvious enjoyment of the role wins us from the start in a production revelling in its own unsurprisingly cinematic inventiveness. Just be prepared for the inevitable periods of boredom, which are not exactly Mendes's fault. He has found his Richard and probably won't look for him again.
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