A few years ago, the Old Vic's Artistic Director played Richard II there (a performance I didn't catch) and now as the final offering in The Bridge Project he returns to Shakespeare to take on Richard III
. Yes, I think we can safely say Kevin Spacey has a well-documented fondness for Dicks. (Seriously, even by my standards this is likely to be a very childish review so be warned.) I saw this near the end of its London run as I tried to put as much distance between it and the excellent Propeller version
as possible, but inevitably I couldn't help making comparisons. And while Sam Mendes' Dick proves much longer than Ed Hall's, it's obvious that what matters is what you do with it.
While star casting has helped this become a huge hit, many people I know stayed away fearing that Spacey's performance as Richard would be massively OTT and if that's what you thought you were right to stay away - though I didn't hate
Spacey as such in this, subtlety has not been invited to the party. The hump is of course present and correct, as is the cane and a calipered left leg twisted at an uncomfortable-looking angle, plus a huge limp, much grandstanding, bellowing and some chucking around of furniture. My biggest issue with the performance really was that, in his constantly dismissive attitude to everyone on stage, it's hard to see how he fooled anyone for a second that he could be trusted. Only in a hilarious video message to the people do we see the oily conspirator trying to charm anyone other than the audience. The overblown performance seems to be infectious, going by Chandler Williams' incomprehensibly bombastic Duke of Clarence. Mostly though the performances are strong, with Chuk Iwuji as spin doctor Buckingham, and especially well-served by the female cast: Annabel Schooley's Lady Anne, Haydn Gwynne's Queen Elizabeth, Maureen Anderman's Duchess of York and most memorably a ghostly bag lady of a Queen Margaret from Gemma Jones, who haunts the whole production, turning up to watch the many deaths she prophesied in her curse.
So often seen as a star vehicle it's no surprise that Richard III
is treated that way here but it comes at the cost of some of the clarity of storytelling - despite it being only a couple of months since I last saw (and easily followed) the same story I did find myself trying to figure out who was on what side and related to whom a lot. Mendes does throw in a couple of Brechtian captions to help with this (the first of these reads "NOW" in case anyone had missed the programme and design's clues that ZOMG THIS IS REALLY RELEVANT TO TODAY!) And once again The Bridge Project has responded to the problem of casting children on a worldwide tour by using adult women (Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely) to play young boys, in this case the Princes in the Tower. It's a conceit that for some reason feels hugely old-fashioned to me and I can't get behind, plus having them played as twee public schoolboys feels out of sorts with the production's otherwise modern sensibilities. And while I liked Tom Piper's set design it, like all those of The Bridge Project in retrospect, is rather pale and lifeless, part of what makes this a cold and (almost literally) bloodless Dick.
Yet what's so frustrating is that this was far from a total mess in my eyes and there were a number of moments that were brilliantly inspired - the aforementioned cheesy video address, a great Se7en
in-joke, Jones' haunting presence and an atmospheric final ten minutes among them. The nonspecific location and modern dress means that the 50/50 split between US and UK accents is never as noticeable as in the past (and each side of the Atlantic provides something nice to look at - Gavin Stenhouse's Dorset representing the Brits, Nathan Darrow's Richmond for the Americans.) In fact I'd go so far as to say this is the best offering from The Bridge Project's three-year run, although given my response to the previous four productions and especially last year's As You Like It
you may not want to take that as an entirely ringing endorsement. But Mendes' reluctance to make major cuts to the text makes the evening a long slog¹ - if your show's going to run at nigh on three and a half hours you'd better be pretty sure it's the best thing since sliced bread, and as 11pm approaches and you wonder if you'll ever be allowed to leave the Old Vic again, I found myself wishing I could have enjoyed the powerful ending half an hour earlier when my brain wasn't all Shakespeared out. In some circumstances it seems, a cut Dick can in fact be better.Richard III
by Willliam Shakespeare is booking until the 11th of September at the Old Vic, and continues on international tour.
¹and once again 1hr 50 minutes before the interval - what is it with that very specific bladder-unfriendly running time? Third time this year.