Richard III: The Old Vic, London

As a production, this interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous tragic history is wonderfully fluid, with great pace. The suspense maintained is a testament to the direction of Sam Mendes, and the set design is wonderful; stark floorboards and brick walls lined with numerous doors, which narrow to a claustrophobic tunnel of symbolic graves. Gemma Jones gives a chilling performance as a Queen Margaret somewhere between cat lady and witch, giving her prophecies the supernatural element they often lack. Drums are used to force the audience to acknowledge that although they are absorbed in the private tale of Richard (Kevin Spacey), the man, this is also a public story of a nation. The military decorations which adorn Spacey’s modern apparel draws a comparison to the military dictators of today: especially pertinent in the filming and projection of Spacey onto a large screen in a farcical but successful attempt to manipulate the public.

Although justified, praise of the design, direction, and indeed strong performances by the supporting cast seem somewhat superfluous in the light of what Spacey has achieved in this role. He brings unswerving commitment; transformed physically and mentally, and consistently and powerfully inhabiting the body of another. The splinted leg, hunchback and troubling arm are fully expressive of a serious deformity, and he commits to their existence while overcoming the trap of becoming de-energised. Indeed, he seems more present and energised than ever, as if demonstrating that he has enough energy to overcome his physical issues, and stillbeat everyone about the stage.

Spacey’s Richard is sharp and witty: intrinsically comic. He is repulsive, yet disarmingly funny. This is the only production I have seen in which the grieving widow Lady Anne’s submission is palatable in the wooing scene. Spacey is grotesque, but he is disarmingly quick, and his arrogant domination gives the actions of Lady Anne credibility. Spacey is a ruthless, egotistical villain; but he is sharp, and even while you loathe him, you long to be close enough to see him.

Spacey draws on the crippling loneliness isolating Richard, and the overwhelming self-loathing he fights. The greater power he gains, the stronger his undermining self-abhorrence becomes. The crowning of Richard as King demonstrates this. The strength and clarity of the drum beat, which is deafening, and incredibly precise, highlights the frailty of Richard. He should be a physically dominating military leader, accepting the highest office in the land. Instead, he battles to limp his way, alone, the length of the stage, and takes a humiliating tumble. He is evidently enraged, refusing any assistance and crowning himself.

This production is tight and dramatic, with strong acting, direction and production. Yet it is very much the Kevin Spacey show. However, when Spacey is this good, you wouldn’t want to be watching anything else. And that’s how Richard III should be – dominated by the hunched figure as he attempts to eclipse all others.

 

Jocelyn Cox

 

Image credit – timdifford