is a tragedy and also the last in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of history plays. Tragedy and history should not normally be funny. Yet, Kevin Spacey’s Richard III
was an incredibly funny play and it makes perfect sense that it should be.
The painstaking processes and clever ruses that Richard undertakes to prove himself noble and honest, when in fact he is a crook, should be seen for all their hilarious hypocrisy. It is also a chillingly contemporary theme that cuts close to the bone of contemporary politics and the media’s role in setting up a leader as a genial, honest man. All this is achieved brilliantly by Kevin Spacey’s acting and Sam Mendes’ innovative direction. The sequence where Richard is ‘disturbed’ at prayer, for example, projected onto a massive TV-like monitor, is a stroke of genius. We see Spacey’s false surprise and overwhelmed eyes in close detail. Unless you’re in the front row, theatre does not normally grant you this privilege of seeing expressions in such intensified and magnified states – it was astounding.
Spacey is an incredible actor. Physically, he was as ugly and twisted as all the insults thrown at him in the play: ‘lump of foul deformity’, a ‘Poisonous bunch backed toad’, ‘deformed, unfinished’. The sight of Spacey hobbling to his throne, a massive hump grotesquely shrouded in his new Royal cloak, will stay with me forever.
Richard is also an extraordinary chameleon. Right after he’s killed Anne’s husband and the corpse is centre stage, the crippled hunchback with the twisted leg in a metal brace, turns into an irresistible lover. Even I, knowing Spacey is playing a horrible villain, am convinced there’s a great deal of sexual chemistry between him and Anne here, her body caving in to his ‘honeyed words’.
It’s traditional in reviews to say something about the staging and costume. I don’t think either are important in this play – it’s all about the performances. Indeed, Shakespeare conjures his images through language, not visual effects, so this is perfectly fitting. Suffice it to say that the production is staged in vaguely modern dress and the stage is sparse, with several doors suggesting the chambers at court or the various departments in politics.
The spotlight is all on Kevin Spacey’s acting and Shakespeare’s incredible psychological portrait of a villain driven to evil by his own self-disgust. There are good supporting performances, particularly from Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret – a sinister presence on stage – and Chuk Iwuji as Buckingham was great as the two-faced, handsome politician. Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne was good enough but no different to other well poised, immaculate Shakespearean heroines I have seen elsewhere. For my money, Spacey outshone the other cast members – when he was off stage it was like the electricity had been turned off.
In essence, go to see Richard III for laughs and first rate, breathtakingly unforgettable acting. If you can get your hands on a ticket that is….
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Kevin Spacey, Gemma Jones, Chuk Iwuji, Annabel Scholey
The Old Vic
June 11 – September 11