Posts Tagged ‘Haydn Gwynne’

26/06/11

Note:  This review is based on a preview performance, so the finished piece may slightly alter.

Having never read nor seen Richard III prior to this performance, I approached this production with timidity. Would the story make sense to me? Would the production assume I had prior knowledge, and would I become lost in the dense history of the play? Happily I had nothing to worry about, as Mendes has created a creatively brilliant and accessible production here.

Collaborating with Sam Mendes for the first time since American Beauty, Spacey’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s anti-hero has been hotly anticipated. The last production in the transatlantic Bridge Project, Spacey takes on the title role in Richard III, a role which allows Spacey to unleash his darker side and revel in the glorious anarchy Richard creates.

The first thing we see upon entering the auditorium is the word “Now,” projected in white on a black screen: a suggestion that the production is aiming for contemporary relevance, however, the design suggests a timeless quality. Catherine Zuber’s costume decisions seem firmly grounded in the 40’s and 50’s, while other elements are very modern – this is complimented by Tom Piper’s minimal but incredibly effective stage design, with the space expanding and contracting as the story requires, easily portraying the dank intimacy of a prison cell in one scene, a sprawling battlefield in another.

We are all aware of Mendes’ ability to create clean and beautiful imagery, and he certainly achieves that here, but can Spacey take on one of the Bard’s greatest villains? Kevin Spacey’s Richard is every inch the bottled spider Queen Margaret describes him as. His twisted and hunched body is supported by a fearsome looking leg brace on his left leg, his back hunched and his arm shrunken and useless. The decision to portray Richard in this manner is a stroke of genius, as it allows Spacey to sidle and creep around the stage like a predator stalking it’s prey – his gait gentle, but always deliberate. There is nothing grotesque about Richard – indeed, his disability (which I assumed to be Cerebral Palsey from the hints we were given) is barely noticed most of the time – that is to say, barely noticed by everyone but Richard.

Spacey’s Richard is never a panto-villain – rather than revel in the Machiavellian qualities we see in the character, Spacey focuses all of his decisions on Richard’s deep sense of self-loathing and isolation. He plays the role of the villain as though it is an inevitability rather than a joy – he doesn’t even seem particularly interested in power, but instead seems to revel in dragging those around him down to his level. As his mother (played admirably by Haydn Gwynne) shuns Richard for his tyranny, and informs him that she will support Richmond in the approaching fight, we see Richard’s true heart as his eyes fill with tears, his face heartbroken, before the mask of anger is fixed back in place and he resumes his villainy. It is a subtle and beautiful moment that explains Spacey’s Richard completely.

Spacey teases out the humour in each scene, supported by some fantastic choices in staging (I am particularly reminded of the video relay, wherein Richard, surrounded by a bible and costumed monks, comically plays up to the idea that he doesn’t want to be king.) and because of this we immediately understand his charm and charisma; the way he is able to manipulate those around him so effectively is certainly chilling. There are also some startling moments, from the sudden ferocity with which he turns on Buckingham with the line “I am not in the vein!”, to the wooing of Anne and his disbelief at his own audacity. It is an incredible interpretation, and a great achievement for Mr Spacey.

There’s an able supporting cast, most notably Chandler Williams as a deeply sympathetic Clarence to Chuk Iwuji’s Buckingham, who succeeds in making sense of the character’s journey from co-conspirator to doomed rebel. Gemma Jones is also spectacular as the prophetic Margaret, her eyes frightening and her voice full of grief and anger as she becomes a kind of Macbethian Wyrd sister in this production.

I would say this production is as near to perfection as a play gets, however, there is one thing that forbids me from saying that. The running time is made bearable by the spectacular action on stage. It maintains fluidity, momentum and drive throughout, with dramatic scene changes underscored by excellent sound and music, but does any play really need to be 3 hours 20 minutes long? The baffling decision to break for interval after more than two hours meant I was worriedly looking at my watch instead of being sucked into the action. I understand the desire to remain true to Shakespeare’s text, but for a modern audience that run time is almost too much to bear.

Mendes’s production is a thoroughly involving and gripping piece, and it ends the Bridge Project on a terrific high. Given its director and its casting, this was always going to be a hit and a sell out. Happily, it deserves to be. It is a shame that my favourite company in the world, Propeller, are doing their own version of Richard III at Hampstead theatre, as people will inevitably make comparisons, but these are two very different styles – go to Hampstead if you’d like a more anarchic version of this play, but for a classic take on the War of the Roses, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Programmes – £4

Running time – 3 hours 20 minutes (though as this was a preview, this may change slightly)