Richard III: Theater Review

Richard III Kevin Spacey drummers - H 2012
Manuel Harlan

Richard III Kevin Spacey drummers - H 2012

Kevin Spacey makes a lip-smacking smorgasbord of Shakespeare’s “poisonous bunch-backed toad” in Sam Mendes’ star-vehicle production.

The director and star of "American Beauty," Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey, reunite on Shakespeare's "Richard III," the closing entry in the ambitious international classical theater undertaking, The Bridge Project.

NEW YORK – The final presentation in the three-year, trans-Atlantic classical repertory venture, the Bridge Project, Sam Mendes’ vigorously nasty staging of Richard III doesn’t stint on theatricality. Subtlety is in shorter supply. But that shouldn’t hinder the enjoyment of audiences salivating over the prospect of Kevin Spacey pulling out all the stops as Shakespeare’s most villainous bully.

This reunion of the director and star of American Beauty has its share of cinematic flourishes. Among them are composer Mark Bennett’s percussive underscoring, and the equivalent of movie cross-cutting in the concluding stretch, as fear begins to gnaw at Richard on the eve of battle. The action zigzags via some sharp stagecraft between the murderous king and his challenger, Henry, Earl of Richmond (Nathan Darrow), ratcheting up tension before, during and after the chilling visitation from the ghosts of Richard’s victims. Raising a glass to his doom, they toast, “Despair and die.”

But more than cinematic touches, Mendes’ fluid staging bears a hint of juicy television drama. Breaking down the lengthy text into episodic nuggets whose focus is beamed in giant projected titles on the rear and side walls  -- Elizabeth, Buckingham, Margaret, The Tower, The Citizens, Bosworth Field, etc. – the modern-dress staging often plays like Dick 3: The Miniseries.

The vaguely 1930-'40s aspect of Catherine Zuber’s costumes occasionally recalls Richard Loncraine’s terrific 1995 screen version with Ian McKellen, set in an imagined Fascist England. But the setting blasted across the front curtain in massive no-nonsense font is NOW, and Spacey’s reading of the title character is distinctly contemporary, particularly in his liberal sprinkling of sarcastic gallows humor.

Disfigured with a hunchback and a twisted leg encased in a nifty Robocop-style brace, but moving with extreme purpose and speed even while stooped over and relying on a cane, Spacey’s Richard is one mean piece of work.

In the last major New York production of Shakespeare’s concluding chapter in the Wars of the Roses, at the Public Theater in 2004, Peter Dinklage played the treacherous monarch as a pugnacious operator. But he subtly conveyed the ways in which the stigma of deformity had fed Richard’s cruelty, and ineligibility for love propelled his quest for power.

That human insight is missing from Spacey’s Richard, who oozes nothing but evil calculation and patronizing insincerity from every pore. His transparently self-serving nature is such that you wonder why so many sharp minds in the court are so easily tricked by him, which undermines the drama. Scenes often played with wily sexuality, such as his seduction of the grieving Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) after killing her husband and father-in-law, are here played with ice-cold malice.

Bolstered by supreme confidence with the language and a playful grasp of the rhythms of Shakespeare’s speech, this is a big, showboating display, rife with the actor’s customary mannerisms. Chief among them is the habit of shrugging off the most malevolent thoughts with deadpan glee, or switching from thundering rage to amused indifference in a single beat. Whether or not it’s intended, there’s also a self-referential nod to Spacey’s role in David Fincher’s Seven when Richard receives the head of Hastings (Jack Ellis) in a cardboard box.

Spacey takes great advantage of the monologue-heavy text to foster winking complicity with the audience. That certainly keeps this Richard III absorbing – even through an exhausting 2-hour first act. (All told, it clocks in at just under 3½ hours.) But it makes the production less effective as a multi-character history play than a single-subject portrait of power-mad amorality.

That’s not to say the ensemble is without interest. Chandler Williams is a touching dupe as the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s trusting brother and an early stepping-stone to the throne. Haydn Gwynne (Billy Elliot: The Musical) draws a well-defined arc from Elizabeth’s haughty invulnerability through steadily mounting terror to wailing lust for vengeance. Maureen Anderman lends dignity to her mortification as Richard’s mother. Chuk Iwuji has choice moments as media-savvy shyster the Duke of Buckingham. And Gemma Jones conjures witchy majesty as Queen Margaret, the curse-spewing widow of King Henry VI.

Tom Piper’s set is an austere gray hall, its walls lined with door upon door, doubling in depth to provide an arresting shift in perspective after Richard’s coronation. Paul Pyant’s precise lighting is especially fine. What little furniture there is gets carried on an off strictly as needed, possibly to prevent Spacey from eating it. As chewy as his flamboyant performance is, however, it’s a virtuoso turn that commands admiration on technique alone.

This is not the most nuanced interpretation of Richard III, but as a conclusion to the ambitious Bridge Project – of which Spacey and Mendes are key architects through their associations, respectively, with London’s Old Vic and Neal Street – it’s a suitably ballsy bid to make Shakespeare accessible to a wide audience.

Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, New York (runs through March 4)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Maureen Anderman, Jack Ellis, Haydn Gwynne, Chuk Iwuji, Gemma Jones, Annabel Scholey, Chandler Williams, Howard W. Overshown, Isaiah Johnson, Andrew Long, Nathan Darrow, Gavin Stenhouse, Michael Rudko, Gary Powell, Jeremy Bobb, Katherine Manners, Hannah Stokely, Stephen Lee Anderson, Simon Lee Phillips
Director: Sam Mendes
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set designer: Tom Piper
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Paul Pyant
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Music: Mark Bennett
Projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Presented by Bank of America, The Bridge Project, Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Old Vic, Neal Street