Theater review: Kevin Spacey in 'Richard III' in London
The last time Kevin Spacey and director Sam Mendes teamed up, Spacey won an Oscar for his performance in “American Beauty.” The two are back in business in a propulsive modern dress revival of “Richard III” at the Old Vic that treats Shakespeare's play as though it were a documentary on the birth of a dictator, enlivened by the bloody, backstabbing machinations of a crew that would make the villains of “The Usual Suspects” (for which Spacey won the first of his Academy Awards) look like Avon ladies.
Much of it works, at least for the first half, in which a deformed Richard (Spacey sporting a leg brace, a humpback and an ironic canary-eating grin) plots his murderous way to the throne. The second half is like a sledgehammer pounding away at what has already been crushed. This is partly the fault of Shakespeare's relentless melodrama and partly the fault of a theatrical approach that increasingly trades manic intensity for originality and color.
Mendes' staging in the early running has a thrilling momentum and vivid simplicity. Scenes are signposted with the names of characters who tend to be at the receiving end of Richard's baleful attention. The action is presented with a swiftness that reminds us that these Elizabethan history plays were prototypes for modern day action movies. The production design, distinguished by Paul Pyant's lighting and Jon Driscoll's projections, conjures a landscape of hallucinatory menace. But the broad outlines of the tale are so emphatically pronounced that a child could tell at a glance the good guys from the bad.
The production will be seen at BAM in January. There are no plans yet for a Los Angeles stop, though it would be right at home in Hollywood, where Shakespeare's thrillers have given rise to generations of blood-soaked action movies.
“Richard III” is a play that has two characters vying for the role of narrator — Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who draws us into his confidence as he soliloquizes his evil intentions; and the furious widowed Queen Margaret (a stupendously scary Gemma Jones), who puts a curse on Richard and his royal henchmen and watches with vengeful glee as her words are slowly but surely realized. Sworn enemies, they not only serve up competing scripts but they attempt to upstage each other with the extremity of their chilling stage presences.
Mendes has cast his actresses magnificently well. Jones' Margaret is a woman maddened by grief who stretches her last miserable years on earth only to see the traitors who destroyed her family choke on their own gore. As Queen Elizabeth, Haydn Gwynne (“Billy Elliot: The Musical”) reveals a horrified awareness that she is turning into a bereaved figure as bitterly deranged as Margaret. And Annabel Scholey, who plays Lady Anne, delicately makes plausible the infamous seduction in which Richard, the man who decimated her world, alchemizes her hate to confounded desire.
Chuk Iwuji's suave, media savvy Duke of Buckingham, Richard's Machiavellian aide de camp, and Chandler Williams' justifiably high-strung Duke of Clarence, Richard's penitent, sympathetic brother, offer contemporary spins that have moments of novelty. But the most daring, fearlessly anachronistic characterization is produced by Spacey, who delivers the “Now is the winter of our discontent” opener decked in a paper crown and tooting a party favor.
On balance, there's more wicked drollery than psychological acuity in this showy, slyly winking performance. Spacey's Richard has a malevolent cockiness that makes his admission “since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain” seem like empty rhetoric. The character's physical impairments are never lost sight of but they pose no impediment to his quest for unchecked public and private power.
This Richard conquers all obstacles, even if he has to sometimes play the part of a lousy actor to obtain it. I'm referring to the scene in which Richard feigns a lack of interest in the throne, despite the clamoring of the crowd for his ascension. Mendes stages this as a multimedia circus, with Spacey's Richard impersonating on screen a holy man devoted to meditation rather than mutilation as the Duke of Buckingham, in high evangelical mode, preaches the necessity of Richard taking custody of this wounded land.
Becoming king turns out to be much more riveting than maintaining kingship. As the drums of war blare louder and louder, the production blurs into a generic nightmare.
Spacey rants and rails without much specificity. He huffs and puffs and nearly blows his vocal cords out. The performance seems more of a physical feat than a mental one. The final stretch is too grueling to be impressive.
But exhaustion, to say nothing of overkill, is unavoidable with “Richard III.” Fortunately, the kinetic energy of Mendes' production fortifies against boredom. Spacey's dastardly panache will no doubt deepen over time. With any luck, Southern California will be added to the global tour and Los Angeles audiences will get the chance to see the ripened fruits of his theatrical malignity.
Photos: Top: Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic. Credit: Tristram Kenton. Bottom: Spacey as Richard III and Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne. Credit: Alastair Muir