Richard III

The Old Vic, booking until 11 September 2011 and then on international tour

After three years Kevin Spacey’s slightly underwhelming time at the helm of the transatlantic Bridge Project is coming to an end. In finding a play worthy of closing the season and rounding things off with almighty bang, it is hard to image too much time was spent time arguing whether Richard III fitted the bill. With Sam Mendes returning to theatre and reviving the collaborative relationship that turned American Beauty from interesting mid-budget indie-pic into a major Hollywood hit, a bona-fide English classic (a treat in what otherwise has been a rather barren diet of macho-slices of Americana from the Old Vic) that is an audience favourite and most importantly a lead role that appears tailor-made for a man who has made unsettlingly charming characters his stock in trade.

It is evident from the outset that Mendes is fully aware of where interest in this production lies. With no disrespect to the rest of the cast, this is as much the Kevin Spacey spectacular as it is Richard III. It is, in short, what the audience, who are paying considerable amounts to be there, are hoping for: towering, powerhouse, barnstorming, tour de force. Critics have been reaching for the thesaurus for ever more obscure ways of acclaiming the performance, even if the production itself does not always reach such high standards.

This is very much acting with a capital ‘A’. More importantly it is acting that is only rarely seen on the English stage nowadays. There is more in common with the greats of the past than the more modern approach, which has seen overt performing dialled down in favour of a more studied psychological approach. Compared with the recent Hamlets of Kinnear, Tennant, which looked to develop particular strains of the character, Spacey’s performance risks looking brash and overbearing.

However, whilst it is clear that Spacey is having tremendous fun in the role, this is a world away from the bombastic delivery of an old ham; he is far too intelligent an actor for that. A more accurate depiction would be to describe it as a masterclass of camp; in its most traditional sense of ‘ostentatious’ and ‘exaggerated’. This is the knowing performance of a man who understands both the play and how to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. The brief flicker of the eyes out to the audience when telling Lady Anne ‘My tongue could never learn sweet smoothing words’ was eerily reminiscient of Frank telling Brad ‘It wasn’t all bad was it? Not even half-bad in fact…’ in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

And it is not to say that he does not do full justice to the richness of Shakespeare text. Indeed in some ways he is paying it great respect as he devours every word, every gesture and flings it back to the audience with interest. When Buckingham finally breaks from the newly-crowned Richard, the build-up to the well-known ‘I am not in the giving vein today’ is inflected with the chilling calm that Spacey has made his own and the audience has an opportunity to glimpse under the mask and see the fragility of Richard’s tempestuous nature.

At times this exuberance can come at the price of textual clarity. In the splendidly written scene that culminates in the death of Hastings the plot unravels at such speed that it requires a calm hand so that the context is not lost. Unfortunately such was the gusto of the performance that the calculating reasoning that leads to Richard’s ‘Thou art a traitor…’ was rendered close to incoherent amidst the sound and fury of Spacey in full flight.

All this focus on performances does not mean there isn’t for interesting directorial flourishes. In particular Mendes does fine work with the female characters; roles which previous productions have a tendency to be overlooked. He is helped by the stellar performance of Lady Anne, Elizabeth and Margaret, who, along with an excellent Buckingham, provide the ballast against Spacey’s Richard.

Mendes still has the eye for a striking image and the image of Richard swinging from a meathook is a stark final reminder that a callous regard for life was a hallmark of all sides during the War of the Roses. There are other moments that linger in the memory and showcase the advantages of a director who has spent time in Hollywood. Self-aware nods to Spacey’s past film are a near-inevitability given that the description of Richard III is close to interchangeable to that of Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.

An awareness of the press and the importance of image management bring clarity to understanding the eventual cracks in the Buckingham-Richard axis. When Buckingham addresses the crowd during the plea for Richard to take the crown, he demonstrates a political naturalness, the charm and ease with the public, which Richard could never hope to match. Tellingly this occurs in one of the rare moments when Spacey is off-stage and it is notable that this is a production where the tension does often dissipate when the whirlwind performance that Spacey brings is taken into the wings.

This is not a brilliant new interpretation or a production that can be described as seminal. However it achieves pretty much everything it set out to do. It puts together a solid production build around a star performance. It understands its audience and subsequently it is a hugely enjoyable show that can be followed by both Shakespeare-buffs and those seeing it for the first time. It also gives audiences the opportunity to witness one of the few A-list screen actors who have genuine claim to being a first-rate stage actor putting in a storming performance on the London stage.

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