On BAM’s “Richard III”

I have to admit right out of the starting gate, that I came to New York this time primarily to see Kevin Spacey do Shakespeare’s arch villain, the comic murderer of children, Richard III.  And after my first three “take-a-chance” choices this week turned into disappointments, I was not in the mood for failure.   And in the end, this was not a disappointment.  Neither will it be counted among the most exciting, best Richard III’s  I have ever seen.   Those honors remain reserved for Olivier, Ian McKellan, and Peter Dinklage.

But Spacey remains one of my favorite actors.  He’s been everywhere of late.  He’s been immersed in this role for months in London and on international tour, and will remain so until the production closes here on March 1.  He is still the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London.  He has a genuine commitment and love for live theatre.  He has made wonderfully semsitiverevealing recent  appearances in the recent films Margin Call and Casino Jack.

On screen, Spacey normally comes across as a kind, pensive “quiet little man.”   Not so here.  His Richard III is delivered at top energy and top volume through-out, as if to deliberately dispel his better known persona.  For almost three and a half hours, he devours the stage with relish every bit as much as Richard devours his victims.  He is quite magnificent to watch, screaming vindictive orders to everyone else on stage.  Even his asides, his secret scheming and plotting is broadcast at top volume, the one exception seemingly being his opening “winter of our discontent” speech.  Without a doubt, it’s a high energy, high intensity Richard, and you know he means every vicious word.  His movements are formalized, ritualistic,  sometimes rhythmic, and studied.  The grotesque rigging he has worked up for his crippled leg is equally over-the-top.   And after his battlefield death for want of a mere horse, he endures hanging upside down from the rafters while the play winds up.  No one could accuse this man of being lazy in his role.

All that being said, he is the only one on stage that director Sam Mendes has apparently allowed to “over-act.”  All the others are for the most part studies in classic linguistic excellence, rendering lines with a worship for the bard’s words that I think does a disservice to the actions, thoughts, urges and feelings that generated them.  Some contextual attention is paid in delivery, but not enough.  It’s as though each line is treated as its own jewel, and doesn’t really require too much emotional connection to what comes before and after.

Personally, I think such word-worship happens all too often in Shakespearean production.  In the last 400 years, how many millions of unlucky students have admitted, “Sounds great, very clever and impressive, very articulate, undoubtedly very wise, but what’s in it for me?  What’s it all for?  Where are the guts?”  …  These magnificent words were after all originally created to lead us directly to the guts!

As period-neutral as this production strives to be in its design, it’s difficult to hear and watch it without thinking it was written last week.  The universal truths in Shakespeare’s verse pretty much guarantee their applicability in any era.  But in the past few weeks, we’ve been watching the same lust for power on the nightly news every night, and worrying that it will once again turn us into a cruel police state with little care for its citizens’ welfare.  Even more familiar to us is the incessant, hypocritical pandering and currying for favor that goes on in our houses of congress … and the blindness, or worse yet, the indifference, toward the suffering it causes.  Thus, we fear, it has always been and ever shall be…  a sometimes useful observation which is a gift from  one William Shakespeare, or whoever the  &%$# you think he was.

Unfortunately, this the last play in what was called “The Bridge project,” begun by Mendes’ and Spacey’s London companies, and. the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  It was a three-year experiment to bring together the best theatrical talents on both sides of the Atlantic for a series of touring productions.  It has been a fruitful partnership.  I saw their initial production at BAM in 2009, a brilliant version of  The Cherry Orchard.  Here’s hoping that their initiative provided the fodder needed for many future such productions of quality.

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