Richard III

William Shakespeare
The Bridge Project
Old Vic
(2011)

Richard III production photo

The Bridge Project has finally brought together its two biggest players with explosive results. In this fifth production, which may also be the last, Sam Mendes has constructed a striking contemporary staging of Richard III around the strengths of Kevin Spacey.

These two transatlantic geniuses of stage and screen, leading a cast chosen from both countries, have envisioned the play as a kind of modern Americanised gangster movie and somehow it comes off.

Mendes and Spacey create a remarkable study in evil. This thoroughly modern murderer combines the malignity of a Hannibal Lecter with the Shakespearean equivalent. In doing so, they bring to the stage a driven man who is determined to prove that he can overcome deformity to win women and power and does so, at least for a time.

Spacey apparently risks crippling himself, so twisted is the body of the would-be King that he portrays. His mind is equally damaged with a ruthless thirst for power identified by the prophesies of Gemma Jones making a ghostly Queen Margaret seem like a crazed bag lady. She reappears whenever a death is to come, marking them off with black crosses on many of the 22 doors that line either side of the stage.

The spare, episodic staging has Brechtian overtones, utilising a stark whitewashed setting graced by minimal props. Until the appearance of Richmond sporting the symbolic red of the Lancastrian rose and offering the chance of an end to the bitter, divisive Wars of the Roses, almost everything is sinister black or Yorkist white.

The modernism starts early, as Richard memorialises the winter of his discontent with his predecessor staring down from a big screen. It also leads to a series of memorable images that often inject wit into a racy 3¼ hours.

A photographer leaves us contemplating the sycophancy and hypocrisy that surrounds the powerful, while strap-hanging commuters lead viewers to one of the evening's peaks when pious onscreen Protector Richard is "forced" by the people, egged on by Chuk Iwuji's sharp-suited Buckingham, to usurp his young nephew and take the crown.

The play ends on a visual high, with a silhouetted anti-hero offering his kingdom for a horse before finally meeting his maker and being hung upside down like a carcass in a butcher's shop window. A fitting end for a man so often described using the imagery of predatory animals.

Richard's American-accented speech is so natural that one frequently wonders whether the language has been updated - it hasn't. This actor is also master of the throwaway line and look, which helps to draw the audience into unwilling alliance once the blood starts to flow.

Sadly, the updating seems all too valid. It would be nice to feel that someone like this could no longer thrive but recent history suggests that tyrants as ruthless as Shakespeare's King manage to rule in a number of countries, taking out rivals and supposed friends as required and maintaining power through fear.

While Spacey, who always has epic stage presence, leads from the front, he has good company with a trio of regal ladies, British stars Miss Jones and Haydn Gwynne together with leading Broadway actress Maureen Anderman in the role of the protagonist's despairing mother, collectively making one appreciate the pain of loss.

Sam Mendes has asked his cast to really whip through the text, often speaking over evocative drums. The disadvantage is that the actors sometimes gabble their lines, making intelligibility an occasional problem.

This approach also sacrifices poetry to action and abundant energy. However, it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout and, along with the star turn from Kevin Spacey, will make Richard III a hot ticket in London until 9th September and then New York, where it plays in the Harvey Theatre at Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM as it is more familiarly known, between 10th January and 4th March next year.

Playing until 11th September

Reviewer: Philip Fisher