There are basically two ways of presenting Richard III: as the culmination of a cycle or as a standalone drama. And, although I think it only makes total sense when seen in the context of the Wars of the Roses, Sam Mendes has come up with a beautifully clear, coherent modern-dress production in which the protagonist becomes an autocratic archetype.
But the real buzz and excitement stems from Kevin Spacey’s powerful central performance.
Spacey doesn’t radically overthrow the Laurence Olivier concept of Richard the Satanic joker, as Antony Sher and Ian McKellen did. What he offers us is his own subtle variations on it: a Richard in whom instinctive comic brio is matched by a power-lust born of intense self-hatred.
You see this right from the start when Spacey sits moodily slumped in a chair watching newsreel footage of his brother’s regal triumph. As he reaches angrily for the zapper, you get an instant sense of exclusion: Richard as the misanthropic outsider who will use a veneer of quick-witted charm as a ladder to the throne.
What is impressive about Spacey is that he acts with every fiber of his being. His voice has acquired a rougher, darker edge. With his left leg encased in a caliper splint, he still bustles about the stage with ferocious energy.
But it is the eyes that one remembers. They reveal the depth of Richard’s self-loathing when Lady Anne succumbs to his wooing and finds in him, as he does not, “a marvelous, proper man.”
The eyes also view the uppity Buckingham with a lethal, basilisk-stare. But the moment I shall cherish from this performance is that of Richard newly enthroned at the start of the second act. Spacey’s eyes express the momentary exultation of power only to move in a second to a restless insecurity.
Inevitably one has to ask what difference modern-dress makes to Spacey’s Richard. The production doesn’t use it, like Richard Eyre’s with McKellen, to comment on the fascist potential of 1930s England.
Instead, contemporary clothes remind us how today’s dictators seek spurious constitutional legitimacy and become skilful media manipulators.
There’s a brilliant sequence when, as Richard seeks the votes of the London citizens, Spacey is seen on video at prayer with a pair of bogus monks whom, at a crucial moment, he shunts out of shot.
But I shall remember Spacey’s Richard less for its political insight into the world of Gaddafi and Mubarak than for its psychological understanding of solitude. In the excellently staged eve-of-Bosworth scene, where Richard’s victims sit behind a long table like a committee of the dead, Spacey cries, “there is no creature loves me.” That strikes me as the keystone of a superb performance.
The stress on Richard’s aloneness exacts a certain price. Chuk Iwuji’s smooth-suited Buckingham never seems close enough to Richard to make his rejection politically tumultuous. And, although Mendes and designer Tom Piper preface each scene with a caption announcing the name of the protagonist, the characters often seem like ciphers in the drama of Richard’s psyche. Intriguingly, in such a male-dominated play, it is the women who emerge most strongly.
Haydn Gwynne catches perfectly the moral revulsion of Queen Elizabeth at being enlisted by Richard in seeking the hand of her daughter even though he has murdered most of her relatives. Gemma Jones also makes Queen Margaret not some ranting harpie but a stern-faced necromancer who uses sticks and earth to put a curse on Richard and who turns up at Bosworth as his nemesis. And Annabel Scholey makes Lady Anne’s capitulation to Richard’s saturnine charms almost credible.
I still like to see Richard III as the climax of a cycle. But this production brings the Bridge Project, with its mixed Anglo-American cast, to an exciting conclusion.
What’s more when the history of Spacey’s Old Vic regime is written, I suspect it will be his Richard, left dangling upside down like the slaughtered Mussolini, that will be most vividly remembered.
And, even if Olivier used the same trick in Coriolanus, that simply shows Spacey is part of a great tradition.
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