Richard III

by William Shakespeare
The Old Vic, London

The Bridge Project, that supreme, transatlantic theatre feat between London's The Old Vic and New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, has entertained close to half a million people across some 15 countries. This final production of the three-year collaboration, Shakespeare's Richard III, is in many respects the perfect send-off to the whole saga, bringing Old Vic Artistic Director Kevin Spacey back to the stage in a feverishly exciting rendition of Shakespeare's most prolific anti-hero.

It would not be untrue to say that in this production it was Spacey the actor first and Richard the character second; one would be hard-pressed not to be overwhelmed by the sheer energy and physicality that Spacey brings to the role, a fact well-established from his previous Old Vic appearances in Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in 2008 and Lawrence and Lee's Inherit The Wind in 2009. From his brooding stance at the beginning of the play as he voices his "winter of discontent" to the exhilarating final image of a slaughtered villain pendulously suspended over the stage, this is well and truly, a Spacey production.

Director Sam Mendes has gone out of his way to make Richard III, originally intended as the concluding instalment of a four-part series by Shakespeare following the Henry VI plays, a robust stand-alone piece. Each scene is neatly captioned with the name of the principal character or location featured. One may feel that this labelling is too deliberate, almost cinematic, as it reduces the play into a series of glossy vignettes. Yet, it achieves its aim of showcasing the different facets of Richard's character - the manipulative brother, the arduous seducer, the sycophantic relative and finally the dastardly King out to quash all his rivals. Through all this, Spacey invests this "poisonous bunch-backed toad" with an unbridled tenacity, commanding all his scenes despite pottering around with a whimsical gait with his walking stick and large leg brace.

Tom Piper's set is a succession of grey walls and corridors, boxed-in and sinister. The minimal props allow the scenes to move fluidly, without any one set or scene being given emphasis. A particularly interesting perspective is offered in the break between the first and second halves of the play (always an interesting directorial choice). The first half ends with Richard slowly making his way upstage for his coronation and finally sinking into his throne far away from the audience in a fanfare of drums. The second half picks off right after this but suddenly the action has been brought downstage, almost as if the audience has now been pushed up close to see the real ugliness of the spectacle. This acts as a clever metaphor for the tenor of the second half, as we see Richard for who he really is and grotesque reality begins to intrude.

There are also some fine supporting performances. In a memorable sequence, Annabel Scholey's Lady Anne makes a swift transition from grieving daughter to a woman enamoured by the sheer monstrosity of Spacey's Richard, strangely drawn to him even as she viciously spits on his face as he seduces her over the corpse of her father. Hadyn Gwynn endows Queen Elizabeth with a hard-edged elegance, her contempt for Richard always threatening to spill out but remaining reined in. Chuk Iwuji's Buckingham also strikes the right note of ambitious co-conspirator and oily businessman, assisting Richard in his exploits to be King until he realises that there is nothing in it for him and fading, quite literally, into the grey background.

Mendes's modern-dress production benefits from excellent use of video projection. A particular highlight is the scene where Richard, desperate to portray himself as a humble and pious man who prefers a life of religious servitude over ascending the throne, gets his henchmen to disguise themselves as monks and pretends to be in deep prayer when publicly asked to be King. The whole charade, captured on a large-screen television that zooms in on Spacey's face and coupled with heckling "citizens" planted at all the corners of the theatre, acquires a fiercely humorous resonance.

Indeed, there is something incredibly complex about Spacey's Richard; even as we see the depths of his iniquity and grow increasingly repulsed by his actions, there is a macabre sense of being drawn in and, like Lady Anne, seduced by his magnetism. His constant self-loathing induces pity; one's heart goes out to him as he trips on his way to the throne during his coronation and then hastily gets up, waving any help away and goes on to crown himself. This is a man intensely aware of his own dastardly actions and hideous appearance and this only goads him to heights of new evil, ordering the execution of his two young nephews and viciously stabbing the severed head of Hastings when it is brought to him in a box.

Mendes has helmed a superb production of Richard III and my one reservation is its length. The first half of this production seems so drawn out that one wonders if the entire play would be performed without an interval. Being one of Shakespeare's longest plays, tighter editing could have been employed, especially in the second half which tends to flag. A lack of familiarity with the political backdrop and the relatively large host of characters also makes the play rather more difficult to keep up with at this length. Nonetheless, the plot sustains dramatic interest throughout and the climactic fight scene (excellently choreographed by Terry King) ends on a suitably impressive note.

The Bridge Project has come a long way in its three years and five productions featuring the talents of Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, Ethan Hawke, Stephen Dillane, Christian Camargo and last but certainly not least, Kevin Spacey and is, without doubt, one of the defining moments of early twenty-first century theatre. It is a great privilege to have been part of this experience at The Old Vic for all three years and one hopes that the success of this venture inspires similar partnerships and excellent theatrical moments as it embarks on its mammoth journey across the globe.

The Crystalwords score: 8/10


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