at the Old Vic, Thursday 7th July 2011
As Jan Kott said in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, the plays of William Shakespeare hold different resonances for each time, arguing that the histories and tragedies about power and ambition can and must be seen in the light of the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. Now, almost half a century after he first wrote the book, Sam Mendes has moved with the times, reminding us that Richard III is a play about autocracy and dictatorship.
Mendes sets the play in a claustrophobic room, with doors covering all wall space, into which bizarre episode names are projected, looking like they’ve been created using WordArt. The juxtaposition of domestic and epic work well with the structure of the play, which is shown here to be about the difference between private and public personas, but in practice it seems fairly incongruous.
Some other bizarre choices are made. Frustratingly, the two boy princes are played by adult women, who neither look nor sound like the children they are supposed to portray. One nice touch – having Margaret appear with each murder, drawing crosses on the doors through which the dead exit – is made pointless by the lack of attention which is paid to it.
There are some striking moments, however, including the decision to have Richard talk to his public via video-link as he is being ‘persuaded’ to take the crown. When both Richmond and Richard are confronted by the ghosts of the slain enemies, it is surprising just how modern Shakespeare’s text feels. Terry King’s fight coordination also treats us to an impressive sword fight in the final ten minutes, which is followed by Richard being hung upside-down, in an image which resembles the execution of Mussolini and the acts of Idi Amin. I do believe, however, that it is this exciting final half-hour which extracts the standing ovation, as the audience forgets that the bulk of the production lacks pace and drama.
Kevin Spacey’s central performance of Richard is also partly the cause of the ovation, but except in the climax of the play he fails to truly explain his characters’ actions and it’s difficult to get a grasp of the manipulation which is used. Spacey’s physicality, however, is extraordinary, with a splayed left ankle which doesn’t stop him from galloping across the stage (although the hunchback is a little too comical). At times, he looks and acts like David Brent; Richard is a pathetic man in need of admiration. There is good support from the rest of the cast, including Chuk Iwuji as a friendly Buckingham and Haydn Gwynne as a headstrong Elizabeth, even if the transatlantic accents are a little off-putting at times.
Tom Piper’s bleak set allows for a wide array of exits and entrances, and is lit surprisingly warmly by Paul Pyant. Mark Bennett’s music, composed mainly of drumming, thunders through the auditorium in a truly militaristic manner. This is a powerful and epic production of Richard III, making some important points about dictatorship in the twenty-first century, but the superlatives should really be saved for Propeller’s far superior interpretation.