I never thought I’d see Kevin Spacey in the flesh, let alone with a cushion up the back of his shirt and a party blower in his mouth. But then I also wouldn’t have said that I’d be watching him perform the final London showing of Richard III at the Old Vic on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Last Sunday, both of those assumptions were blown from the proverbial water.
It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a spectacular, stellar production. Directed by Sam Mendes, Spacey and the rest of the cast keep the audience in thralls throughout. Richard is gnarled, bitter and angry, with a warped sense of humour. His psychopathic, relentless murdering spree is interpreted, in my mind, to absolute perfection; the Duke’s asides are vicious quips, and Richard’s madness is amplified by a sustained and disconcerting bent. If there was any doubt about the calibre of this production, then they were assuredly allayed during Richard’s early scene with Lady Anne, played by Annabel Scholey, which takes place around her husband’s dead body. Spacey is disgustingly brilliant, and grotesque in the extreme. Richard can be anything to anyone, and it would take an actor of Spacey’s versatility to fulfill the role to the dizzying standard it deserves.
The modern costumes, as in many contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, contribute something refreshing and put the actors at ease. There’s a aura of cool- ironic really, given the inevitable sense of foreboding. The clothes don’t wear the characters, but they definitely contribute to our understanding of them. Richard’s mechanical leg brace is rigid- a bold step and a sign that this is a production that is intent on getting the tone just right.
The staging really is second to none, and particularly resonates when Richard’s victims return in his dreams the night before the Battle of Bosworth. The Last Supper-esque staging sees Richard and Henry, Earl of Richmond, at each end of a table, with Richard’s victims, including Rivers and Buckingham, sat along one side. Each gives their animated, impassioned speech, building to a crescendo of wild torment for Richard as his eventual assailant sleeps peacefully at the other end of the table. Such vivid, clear arrangements as these punctuate the performance, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the proceedings. This is an accessible play, made all the more so by the unrivalled direction of Mendes and the sheer durability of Spacey’s character.
In an interview with Mendes and Spacey entitled “Exploring the dark side”, Spacey comments that “Richard is an incredible character because he does all the things he sets out to do and says he will, and is so delighted with the outcome that he constantly ups the ante”. To play such a character requires the actor to “go to places you generally don’t want to go, examine all the things in your own life that you regret [and] unearth all the shit”. Indeed, Richard speaks directly to his audience for the duration of the play, creating a co-conspiratory dynamic whereby the viewer feels a part of his actions. Richard is the Shakespearian opposite of Hamlet, the meek prevaricator, who never can quite do the deed.
But for such a dark and challenging character, Richard sure provides a whole lot of laughs. I can’t think of a villain who excites as much sympathy and as many smiles. His dark, deep humour presents a satire is so unbelievable, that we begin to believe it. The Duke’s twisted sentiments are so tyrannical that they defy the audience to follow along, and yet we do. And, I suspect, this has much to do with the astonishingly brilliant brutality of Spacey’s performance than anything else.
As the play came to its end, glittering in rapturous applause, Kevin Spacey addressed his audience as himself. There was a minute’s silence for those lost in the tragedies that occurred on 9/11, and a unified audience were reminded that coming together as a community, theatrical or otherwise, is the only way that we’re going to “beat those fuckers”.