"Richard III": Spacey Dominates Shakespeare — to the Poetry's Detriment

People don't last long in Richard III. Kings can scarcely enjoy a moment's happiness on their thrones before their lives become futile efforts at protecting their prize from real and imagined usurpers. It's language that has lasting power. It makes a coward out of a hired murderer. It convinces a widow to marry the man who killed her husband. And it curses — the strongest weapon in the play.

Director Sam Mendes knows that people wouldn't be lining up around the block for his production of Richard III, at the Curran now and headed around the world, if Kevin Spacey weren't the lead. But his approach neglects the language, the real star of Shakespeare's most popular history. This Richard III has a rollicking good time with its title character, surely the vilest villain in dramatic literature, but it also reduces some of the English language's most spectacular displays of rhetoric to filler.

In Spacey's rendering, Richard truly becomes a "bottled spider," a "poisonous bunch-backed toad." Opening the play surrounded by pizza boxes and beer, obsessively watching news clips about the king, he is already every bit the brother everyone wants to forget, the vermin crawling around the basement, the only one convinced of his greatness. But then when Spacey leaps out of his chair, revealing Richard's notorious hunchback and limp (even more pronounced than the one he used in The Usual Suspects), he becomes disgustingly inhuman, moving his appendages with an insect's twitchiness.

Kevin Spacey's Richard III will be wanting a horse later.
Manuel Harlan
Kevin Spacey's Richard III will be wanting a horse later.

Spacey's delivery is best when Richard's arrogance and self-absorption verge on singsong. When he's deceiving — feigning love, virtue, or piety — he takes his performance too far, because he can. His Richard isn't just smug; he knows he's smug, he thinks it's funny, and he wants you to think so, too. But secretly, he's desperate for love and loyalty. The cruelties he breezes through — "whom I but lately widowed" sounds like one word — are loyalty tests that gradually become impossible to pass. Aside from a little too much barking of his lines and a few too many audience-pleasing contemporary inflections, it's a very fine performance, one that confirms Spacey's caliber.

The same cannot be said for Sam Mendes' direction. The two last collaborated on American Beauty, and the influence of cinema on Mendes' eye is not always positive. His sound effects are a little "dun dun dun," and there's even some gratuitous flying — of a dead body, no less.

The biggest problem with the direction, though, is when it feels wholly absent — i.e., when the actors are making movements so small it's as though they expect a camera to catch their every blink in close-up. This is especially problematic toward the end of the first act, when Richard orders one murder after another to clear his path to the throne; the story becomes so hard to follow that, despite the universal competence of the ensemble, you find yourself struggling to discern the good guys from the bad guys. More clearly defined staging, that kept things moving and that had actors other than Spacey use their bodies, would have been helpful — especially amid the monochromatic palette that defines the set, lights, and costumes.

Some inspired moments leave you wondering why the director couldn't have used his imagination more consistently. The coronation scene, in particular, unfolds just as Richard might fantasize the perfect moment in his life: The set parts to reveal a giant poster of the new king and the entire cast marches onstage to play an intense rhythm on hand drums, which Richard dances to. But it's also an apt crystallization of the production's limited focus; it's no wonder that it's depicted on the show's poster.

 
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Liv
Liv

I don't know, I think there were some unique choices in the direction, all that owed to the clarity of the storytelling. Like Buckingham's political rallying, the ghosts coming to Richard at the last-supper-like table (very eerie), and the whole photo-op when the king is trying to join the two families near the beginning of the play. And I suppose I feel the same way about Kevin spacey's delivery. To me it wasn't filler, but clarity of storytelling. I don't quite understand what you mean when you say the language was reduced to filler, because I was astonished at the power the language rendered while riding forward a series of potentially redundant-feeling events. What's more the production managed to evoke a dream.. Ok this isn't my review, but wanted to put my 2 cents.

Liv
Liv

Oh, also, I was sitting in 2nd to last row and felt like I was in the Elizabethan theater. In other words, I appreciated what felt to me like HUGE choices on the part of actors/directors. Not to mention, the crowd's unanimous response to shift forward in their seats whenever richard moved downstage was magical and actually rare in our current theater.

Lily Janiak
Lily Janiak

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Liv. What you and the other commenters have said reveals this to be a rich production indeed -- if different audience members are moved by such different moments.

Wardy8030
Wardy8030

Actually, the cleverest single moment is when the little Prince of York pounces on Richard's humpbacked shoulder. This is usually one moment when Richard loses his public guard and shows his true angry, malicious personality. Spacey did very differently-as if nervously laughing off an awkward moment. He still delivered the same message of embarrassment, resentment, and anger about his disfigurement--but without really letting down his guard. I think much thought was given to the moment, of how how to distinguish it from other versions and I was impressed by it.

Lily Janiak
Lily Janiak

Very true, Wardy. That was a deeply jarring scene -- For a moment, it made me wish there were more cracks in the Richard facade, but then I thought that might make the very few that were there less special. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Liv
Liv

Remember when he fell on his way to the coronation?

Guest
Guest

I have to agree with this review. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but it was all about Kevin Spacey's excellence. And excellent he is at playing that part. The wooing scene with Anne is great and she puts up a good show. Some of the other brothers/cousins come through occasionally with some inspired work. But, mostly, the production is too flat for the big stage and only Kevin Spacey makes the stage come alive. It is telling that the video-conference scene is one of the best even though it comes in the part of the play where Shakespeare is mocking the gods to contain this beast. Spacey's face writ large is full of expression that you don't get in the real life part of the play. Like I said though, I really enjoyed this show, dark as it is. I came away thinking "Spacey is really good" instead of "Mankind has the capacity for real evil".

Lily Janiak
Lily Janiak

Thanks for this response! I like the way you put the idea, "mocking the gods to contain this beast." I want to reread the scene now with that in mind...

 
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