nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 19, 2012
In all my previous encounters with Shakespeare’s Richard III, on stage, on screen, and even on the page, the character of Richard himself has been central to my experience of the play: a villain of the highest order (he’s murdered or engineered the murder of many, including the husbands, fathers, and/or sons of all the women in the piece by the time it’s over; he’s utterly conscienceless, interested only in his own advancement) who succeeds, by sheer force of will and an ability to maneuver real people like chess pieces, in ascending to the throne and taking the widow of one of his own victims as his queen. But in the Bridge Project’s current production, something curious happens: Richard is by far the least interesting element, and all kinds of other things come to the forefront.
Kevin Spacey’s Richard seems to have two modes of speech: the blustering bellow and the campy, snide aside, playing to an audience that is clearly those seated in the stalls rather than his fellow characters. Now, Richard does frequently address the audience directly; one of the dynamics of the play is the way the audience is usually better informed about Richard’s intentions and motivations than the people around him. We can be impressed by the smoothness with which his schemes work themselves out even as we’re horrified by the schemes themselves: having his older brother murdered to put himself in a better position to take the crown when the ailing eldest dies; wooing the Lady Anne, widow of the former Prince of Wales, whom Richard killed to put that eldest brother on the throne; having his nephews murdered so he can rule as monarch, not regent; having his queen poisoned so he can propose to marry his niece and tighten his claim to the realm.
But the people around him also need to be maneuvered by him; we’re informed over and over that he wears his evil on his skin, as it were (his deformities represented here by not just the normal hunchback but by a twisted leg and elaborate leg brace)—and yet he gets away with his plots for a very long time. He needs to show force of personality, whether that’s charisma or an unchallengeable iron will, and Spacey seems to rely entirely on mockery, on forming an arch alliance with the audience and finding new ways to mine jokes from Shakespeare’s language. It’s not that Richard should be likable, but that Spacey’s Richard is unlikable in entirely the wrong way. Even when he bellows, he seems petulant and whiny, a child pouting over an imagined slight rather than a man plotting to basically kill anyone who thwarts him even for an instant.
But if one is able to put Spacey’s performance aside, other pleasures and spots of interest emerge. In the thick of our own Republican presidential primaries, there’s something oddly apropos about the play’s focus on thorny questions of political succession, of who will prevail and take the throne—in a situation where all the contenders have essentially identical claims if one looks only to their family trees. Rather than an election campaign, of course, here the winning strategy seems to be simply to arrange to have all your rivals killed, by your own hand if strictly necessary, but more ideally through machinations that can’t precisely be traced back to you, like rumor-mongering and engineering the passing of death sentences. (It’s like the Super-PACs of assassination.)
Also feeling oddly relevant in campaign season is the omnipresence of the wives, widows, and mothers of the “candidates”—the women who are technically on the periphery of the play’s political battlefield, but who are the emotional heart and the moral center of the play, constant reminders of the death toll of Richard’s plots and all beautifully performed here: Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, who is also mother to George, Duke of Clarence, whose murder in the tower is arranged by Richard, and King Edward IV, who dies of natural causes (the stoic Maureen Anderman); the Lady Anne, widow of Edward, the former Prince of Wales (also killed by Richard) and later Richard’s wife (the fierce Annabel Scholey); Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s newly widowed queen, whose sons are murdered in the Tower of London (Haydn Gwynne, immensely dignified even as her sorrows mount); and Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI, supposedly exiled but hanging around like a vengeful ghost (Gemma Jones, as fiery and eerie as the witches in Macbeth).
Director Sam Mendes, as with many of the other pieces he’s directed for the Bridge Project, has a gift for foregrounding the richness of the language. Here, especially, the tricky, intricate wordplay is well served; the play is particularly full of symmetries and echoes and mirroring constructions, fitting for a play about a civil war with no clearly defined “right” side.
I can’t, of course, whole-heartedly recommend a Richard III where I was infinitely more engaged when the titular character was offstage—but the rest of the production is solid, with some interesting insights into the play.