Well the critics loved much, if not all, of the Bridge Project's much anticipated swan song production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey. The production is now at London's Old Vic theatre before going on tour, finishing with two months at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from January 10, 2012. Spacey's performance above all wowed everyone:
There have, it's true, been more creepily charismatic and more unnerving portrayals of Shakespeare's Machiavellian villain. But Spacey's performance combines instinctive, stage-commanding authority with lovely, droll touches of drop-dead understatement.
There are times when this Richard seems like a satanic second cousin of Vincent Price, with his little mocking tosses of the eyebrows, flouncily dismissive flaps of the hand, archly subversive pauses in the middle of a list or a line and in the rather camp complicity he sets up with his dupes onstage and with the audience in the theatre. Equipped with a brutally disfiguring hump and hobbled by a Keyser Söze-style limp, Spacey also communicates a terrible sense of the furious self-hatred, seething resentment and maternally fomented misogyny that evidently drive his Richard.
This is a proper, gruelling piece of live theatre, and confirms Spacey's mastery of it. Bucking recent trends, he plays Richard very crippled — a heavy caliper, the twisted gait of the “bunch-back toad”.
As he progresses from corporate suit to the epaulettes and medals of a 20th-century dictator, his grotesqueness is exaggerated. Yet his face — always tending to wide-eyed blandness — ever evokes the dodgy-uncle charm that makes him credible. Shakespeare's Richard is always the witty fascinator, drawing us to complicity: Spacey is master of the sexy sidelong glance, dragging out shocked unwilling laughs.
But there were doubts too:
Compellingly watchable though he is, however, you never feel as you do with the truly great Richard IIIs that Spacey is exposing something dark and dangerous that he has discovered within himself. He offers a brilliant display of bravura technique, but you never quite forget that you are watching a cunningly calculated performance.
Though Mendes's production with his Anglo-American Bridge Project company is fluent and lucid, it lacks the striking invention and disconcerting dreamlike atmosphere of Edward Hall's production now running at Hampstead.
Said The Telegraph. The Stage had problems with the rest of the company:
Much of the support acting is poor and poorly articulated, in Sam Mendes' production, the last throw of the Bridge Project, bound for New York (after Athens, Hong Kong and Spain) in the New Year. There's an awful lot of shouting. The princes in the Tower are pointlessly played by fully fledged actresses.
and even with Spacey's performance:
He is, of course, mesmerising. The pace and vigour of the performance is relentless… He's dead behind the eyes, exchanging the party hat for a tunic of medals and dark glasses, malice and contempt playing at the corners of his mouth, each flicker registering poisonously throughout the theatre. And yet it all seems played on one note.
The Arts Desk sort of agrees:
But is he dangerous enough? In a revealing moment in a programme Q&A, Spacey says he's “stopped drinking, smoking, everything to dedicate [himself] to this character”. I rather wish he hadn't. If there's anything missing from his performance, it's decadence, a whiff of sweaty corruption and moral disintegration – of the charnel house; but these are small lacks in a full evening. Spacey's obvious enjoyment of the role wins us from the start in a production revelling in its own unsurprisingly cinematic inventiveness. Just be prepared for the inevitable periods of boredom, which are not exactly Mendes's fault. He has found his Richard and probably won't look for him again.
The Guardian‘s superb Michael Billington has some very subtle observations:
What is impressive about Spacey is that he acts with every fibre of his being. His voice has acquired a rougher, darker edge. With his left leg encased in a calliper splint, he still bustles about the stage with ferocious energy. But it is the eyes that one remembers. They reveal the depth of Richard's self-loathing when Lady Anne succumbs to his wooing and finds in him, as he does not, “a marvellous, proper man”…
Inevitably one has to ask what difference modern-dress makes to Spacey's Richard. The production doesn't use it, like Richard Eyre's with McKellen, to comment on the fascist potential of 1930s England. Instead, contemporary clothes remind us how today's dictators seek spurious constitutional legitimacy and become skilful media manipulators.
Richard III marks the final production of Sam Mendes' Bridge Project, and although, as The Telegraph notes,
This is an exciting and richly entertaining production… that finally misses greatness by a whisker.
The Independent says,
Spine-tingling, and a most compelling way for the Bridge Project to bow out.
Photo: © Tristram Kenton
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.