I haven’t previously found much to praise in either Kevin Spacey’s acting or Sam Mendes’s directing. So I arrived at Mendes’s Bridge Project production of Shakespeare’s Richard III (BAM Harvey), starring Spacey, with limited expectations and a grim awareness of its announced 3:15 running time. I always go into the theater hoping for the best, but this time, I felt sure I would see my hopes dashed.
More fool I. While I have many reservations and wouldn’t call this one of the great Richard IIIs of my experience, I must concede that Mendes has made a strong, sustained, lucid production, the center of which Spacey fills with an equally strong, solidly organic performance. Both artists make some odd or erratically inconsistent choices along the way, but relatively few. You leave feeling that you’ve seen Shakespeare’s play brought to animate life, and that both director and star have conveyed all they can about its meaning for our time.
That ought to be standard practice, but unhappily it isn’t. Most theater people these days, British or American, apparently believe two things about Shakespeare: (a) that his texts are sacred objects, to be transmitted without having first been scrutinized for sense; (b) that audiences no longer comprehend Shakespeare’s words nor desire to do so, leaving artists free to dump whatever crap they please onto the text. Mendes and Spacey, in contrast, show attentiveness even when departing from the specifics the text implies: They present their alternatives as firm, sometimes defiant, choices, with no artsy fuzziness or meaningless decoration. When Richard, newly crowned king, cries out, “Stand all apart!” Mendes’s startling invention perfectly encapsulates his eagerness to match the show’s physical life to the poet’s words.
The evening’s spare look and sound compel the words to do most of the work. Tom Piper’s stark set displays two rows of doors converging on an upstage vanishing point; removing the back wall doubles its depth in Act Two. Mark Bennett provides equally stark percussion music, scored mostly for a fleet of military drums, played live. The innumerable modern analogies for Richard’s violent climb to power are self-evident. With curt effectiveness, Mendes nails the parallel into place, using bits of video and projected scene titles that suggest a PBS documentary.
He treats modernity as a convention, not a literal parallel, just as Shakespeare, writing 400-plus years ago about the events of a century earlier, used the diction of his own time. Catherine Zuber’s costumes move in periods familiar to the contemporary eye, ranging from early Edwardian to the present.
Within this harsh, bare space, rarely dressed by more than a few sticks of furniture, Spacey’s Richard looms, a snarling figure half-primitive, half-modern. De-emphasizing the hump Shakespeare calls for in favor of an ostentatiously game left leg, he gimps about in a perpetual fury of misanthropic resentment. Every Richard must show some bitterness and anger, but Spacey’s is the angriest and meanest-spirited I can remember.
This approach, though fresh, slightly misses the mark. Shakespeare’s Richard, for all his dark malice, is also a self-mocking ironist, at times even an outright clown, inviting the audience to laugh along with him through the evening’s parade of hired assassins and executions. The laughs that Spacey gets have occasioned much remark, probably because, by intention, he gets so few that they jump out startlingly from the overall rasp, growl, and bark of his performance. He often seems more like a crazy person than a power-hungry political manipulator.
This has its point: The Richard-like dictators of our own time have shown little indication of sanity. But an audience has to believe that others are willing to follow Richard. Shakespeare makes him a convincing hypocrite, skilled at counterfeiting vulnerability, tenderness, loyalty. Spacey, putting these on for a moment or two, drops them so quickly that imagining anyone gullible enough to trust him becomes impossible. When, at the end, they hang Richard’s corpse upside down like Mussolini’s (a cheer for Spacey’s brave willingness here), you can’t recall him getting anything like the childish affection Italian mobs once showed Il Duce. Still, the one-sided interpretation works: The proof is that my fascination with it has left me no room to discuss the supporting performers, many of them excellent, who must confront Spacey’s ruthless snarl.