Thursday, January 19, 2012

Spacey's Shakespeare

Spacey and Scholey in Richard III (photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard III
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Sam Mendes
Previews began January 10, 2012; opened January 18; closes March 4
BAM Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY

In Sam Mendes’ distressingly uneven production of Richard III, featuring Shakespeare’s most charismatic and evil villain, Kevin Spacey portrays the self-hating murderer with flamboyant verbal and physical tics that telegraph the Duke of Gloucester’s horrible behavior--he woos and weds a new widow, kills or turns the machinery that kills various other candidates in line to become king, among other dastardly deeds--as repulsive and attractive to the audience, just as Shakespeare wanted.

Richard’s opening soliloquy--“Now is the winter of our discontent”--is accompanied by so many winks and nods to remind the audience that it’s complicit in his connivance that it could just as well be the “Bard for Dummies” approach seen in Central Park each summer.

The talented Spacey overplays Richard’s “performing” throughout, looking to the audience conspiratorially or breaking character to comment--usually by gesture or eyebrow-raising, but once even imitating Groucho Marx--on his superiority to the others onstage. Some of this works, as we are supposed to go along for the ride against our will, but Spacey goes too far, and ends up beating to death Richard’s grotesquely roguish charm until it means nothing.

The volatility extends to the physical aspect of Spacey’s characterization. With a brace on his left leg, he walks with such a pronounced limp and twisted, even contorted movement that it’s painful to watch him stalk the stage. His tendency to bellow many of his lines (I’d say 75% of his dialogue is shouted) lessens the dramatic impact of his speeches, notably the final “My kingdom for a horse” speech, uttered so loudly he might as well be talking about how hoarse he is after a performance.

Spacey enunciates Shakespeare’s language so that it’s intelligible; his perfect diction helps in our being seduced by Richard’s words, especially in that amazing scene that only Shakespeare could pull off: Richard proceeds to beat down Lady Anne’s defenses and successfully woo her while her dead husband’s still-warm corpse is in the room. In this scene, Annabel Scholey impressively keeps up with Spacey’s breakneck pace, even while demonstrating that not shouting can make Shakespeare’s poetry equally compelling.

Mendes’ direction, swinging from the bravura to the mundane, never finds a proper tone or pace for a nearly 3-½ hour long evening. The two-hour long first act bounces around erratically, and even the second act’s swiftness doesn’t exonerate Mendes, who switches gears arbitrarily from realism to expressionism to surrealism in the final sequences with little forward thrust toward the inevitable catharsis. Even such gimmicks as Richard watching a grainy B&W movie at the beginning--he uses a remote to pause it before launching into his opening speech--or Richard on a giant video screen accepting the crown are never integrated into this modern-dress staging, but instead are left dangling on their own, like the desperate stratagem of projecting titles (“Elizabeth," “Richmond”) to help the audience keep characters straight.

Aside from Scholey’s Lady Anne, the forgettable supporting cast is topped by Haydn Gwynne’s nicely understated (but not underplayed) Queen Elizabeth. And Mark Bennett’s music--mostly drumming by ghostly cast members, with two side musicians doing double duty on more percussion--pounds away pointlessly, except maybe to drown out Spacey’s exhausting shouting.

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