‘Part Groucho Marx,
Part Moammar Gadhafi’
By Marc Kennedy
FORT GREENE — After more than three hours of Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after all the death and bloodshed has finally given way to peace, one thought quickly comes to mind: Will someone please cut Kevin Spacey down?
As the victorious Richmond speaks the play’s final lines, Spacey’s Richard is behind him, hanging from his ankles over the stage like a side of beef. It’s yet another sign of how far Spacey and director Sam Mendes have gone to bring this very current-sounding Shakespeare history play to life.
Spacey’s Richard is overblown and cartoonish and yet impossible to stop watching. He is part Groucho Marx and part Moammar Gadhafi — a sarcastic, snarling tornado of resentment whose reign of terror somehow is funny. Not often does Richard’s line, “I wish the bastards dead,” get laughs.
If Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard was a smooth, icy plotter, Spacey’s is an over-the-top, manic serial killer. It’s almost sad to see him strung up at the end like Mussolini. Producers should really stock popcorn at the concession stands.
This Richard III, which opened Wednesday, is the final production of the Bridge Project, which for the last few years has brought together British and American actors in classic plays directed by Mendes. Spacey, who worked with Mendes on American Beauty, is now artistic director of The Old Vic, where this production opened in June.
Spacey limps through the play Keyser Soze-like with a cane, a great hump protruding from his shoulders and his left leg twisted and strapped — “deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time,” he complains. You can feel his pain.
When he first appears, the goateed royal is alone watching a newsreel about his brother the new king and Richard, dripping with sullen sarcasm, blows a New Year’s Eve noise maker while wearing a paper crown. Winter’s discontent, indeed.
Then his plotting goes into overdrive and the body-count mounts as he maneuvers himself to the throne: The dead include one brother, two nephews, his own wife, several one-time allies and a bunch of in-laws. No wonder Queen Margaret, who Richard has made a widow even before the play has begun, warns the dwindling number of survivors on stage that this man is “a hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death.”
After finally becoming king, Richard wraps himself in an ermine wrap, puts on sunglasses reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak, and boasts a chest-full of ridiculous medals and epaulets. He only once seems to waver in his bloodlust, the night before the climactic Bosworth Field battle when the ghosts of his dead enemies haunt his dreams.
That’s just one of several wonderfully realized scenes. Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne — a pretty brash effort since he killed her husband — is a sexy, twisted moment. Having two women play the ill-fated princes who end up killed in the Tower of London is a neat twist on Shakespeare’s own gender-bending casting. Having the public represented as commuters on a train reading newspapers is cute and having Richard poke at a freshly shorn head in a box is funny-gross.
The show’s highlight, though, is the astonishingly good piece of theater that is pulled off when Richard stage-manages his own public campaign to be king, complete with fake press conference and a video hookup from backstage. Richard pretends to be caught deep in prayer and deliciously tries to beg off being drafted to be king.
Tom Piper’s set is understated and wickedly functional — a simple series of 18 cream-colored doors that in Act 2 opens up to create a corridor. Paul Pyant’s lighting emphasizes the darkness and smartly beams light through the doors at times to make the shadows of the doomed flicker big and vulnerable.
It’s not exactly clear when Richard III is set — although the play opens with the word “Now” on a projection screen. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are natty, modern slim grey suits and classic evening wear, while military uniforms and equipment hark back to World War II. One assassin wears a hoodie, while microphones and the use of video add a current touch. Music by Gareth Fry emphasizes military drums and shimmering percussion, with the actors themselves banging out an impressive beat on stage.
Other than Spacey, the rest of the cast is positively understated. Annabel Scholey is a lovely Lady Anne, playing her character as both aroused and horrified to be aroused by this “foul bunch-back’d toad.” Chuk Iwuji plays a slick Buckingham, a sort of campaign manager who later runs afoul of the candidate.
This production deserves kudos also for making the potentially confusing Richard III accessible. There are, after all, three Richards and three Edwards in the play, not to mention several queens, lately shorn of their husbands. Projections before each scene give the audience the name of the main character in it, helping immensely. But there is no fear of losing track of Spacey’s Richard. He’s to die for.