The final installment of one of Shakespeare’s tetralogies, following Henry VI Parts 1 -3, the play tells the story of the rise of Richard III and his immediate decline at Bosworth Field. It is a particularly striking story, marking the end of the Wars of the Roses and placing Richard in a particularly interesting position. Shakespeare gives us a character that is the classic anti-hero. Everything he does is malicious, selfish and Machiavellian, his behavior the exact opposite of the classical hero, yet he is the main character in the play, the focus, the lead. Shakespeare invested a lot of time into making this dynamic work, this being his longest play of all bar only Hamlet, which results in a character that is charming and seductive as well as bitter and evil. It is a delight to watch from beginning to end whether you are aware of the constantly referenced Henry VI plays or not.
The design of a Shakespeare play is always crucial. Mendes has opted for modern dress and has imitated the uniform of various dictatorships in our modern world, giving it that necessary modern feel. The design of the set was marvellous from start to finish. The greyness wasn’t overbearing and the doors that surrounded the stage gave enough options for the action to be constantly dynamic. When the stage opened back at the interval the shape changed and gave a feeling of unification and direction; that there was now only one way the action was going and it was surprisingly powerful.
There is a lot of technology involved in the show and, by and large, it was all very good indeed. The scene where Richard is offered the crown over a video link was both funny and disturbing, much like Richard himself. The titles splashed across the stage at each scene change helped give the show direction and I approved of them but there was a bit too much technology. The use of microphones and supplemented cheering from crowds was fantastic and really gave a sense of drama but this wasn’t the case for all innovations. The power of good old-fashioned drums was proven in this production; when there were only a few drums they felt powerful, when everyone was on stage with one and making a lot of noise it was truly imposing.
One of the famous Shakespearean roles, Richard III is taken easily in his stride by Kevin Spacey, clearly wanting to give a different take on the role to the successes of the past. His dictator is very panto in his characterization; the contraption that straps his leg together and his walk as a result of it are very Hunchback of Notre Dame and his mannerisms and swift flips between smiling façade and sinister plotting are sudden and comical – it is a very funny Richard that Spacey gives us – and the result is that you enjoy his time on stage, you enjoy him and his plans and even though you know he must be defeated and that it is good that he is defeated you do mourn his passing. Spacey’s Richard is enjoying his life, he is enjoying killing people left right and center, he is enjoying scheming and deceiving his friends and the people as if it were a glorified game to him. This makes him all the more human and watchable. Spacey never once makes a mistake, a wrong line, a faulty step or anything and his Richard is confident and assured as a result, making him as terrifying as he is pantomime.
There is not a weak link in the cast but there are too many of them to compliment name by name so I shall settle for picking out Chuck Iwuji as a special mention. Other than Spacey’s Richard, his Buckingham was the character that stood out the most and this was all due to Iwuji’s dauntless efforts. Whether scheming in a shady room or on the television asking Richard to be King of England he is confident and subtle, a perfect performance. You often see Shakespeare on stage and lose the meaning of the lines because the actors themselves aren’t entirely sure what they’re saying. Iwuji clearly understood every word and his brilliant delivery ensured that we did as well: a rival for Kevin Spacey as the leading member of the cast in my opinion.
There is the undeniable feel of Sam Mendes about this production, again proving in his Bridge Project with the Old Vic that American and English actors can mix and do Shakespeare well he is developing a new style of transatlantic theatre.
It was not, however, a perfect show (although this may now be classed as nitpicking). The decision to have the two young princes in the tower played by women made no sense at all. There was no need for it and it only served to break the rhythm, suddenly making you very aware that you were in a theatre watching a play as opposed to being engrossed in the action. The only major criticism is of the character of Margaret. It wasn’t clear what exactly she was, whether she was a ghost or a witch or an old bitter Queen. She wasn’t incorporated well into the current action of the play and from her first appearance I wasn’t entirely sure of her context or form.
This show is one of the best I have seen in recent months, which is perhaps unsurprising for the Old Vic, thriving under the Artistic Direction of Kevin Spacey. As Shakespeare goes, this goes very well indeed, succeeding in almost every facet. It would be regrettable indeed to miss it.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Sam Mendes; At the Old Vic; Starring Kevin Spacey, Chuk Iwuji, Jack Ellis, Gary Powell, Andrew Long, Michael Rudko, Annabel Scholey, Haydyn Gwynne; Runs from18 June 11 - 11 September 11.
John Ord (19/07/2011)