LONDON – Everybody loves a villain, and Richard III is one of the best, a scheming nobleman with a lust for power and an exuberant love of his own villainy.
In Shakespeare’s history play Richard, younger brother of the king, covets the crown, and is willing to eliminate anyone – sibling, allies, young nephews – who stands in his way. Yet when he gets the prize, he is consumed by the fear that he will lose it.
Kevin Spacey attacks the role with relish – and at times with a touch of ham, in a powerfully visceral performance, directed by Sam Mendes, at London’s Old Vic.
The production is a triumphant reunion for the two men, whose last project together, the 1999 film “American Beauty,” won five Academy Awards, including best actor for Spacey and best director for Mendes. Since then, Mendes has directed plays and movies, including “Revolutionary Road,” “Away We Go” and the next James Bond thriller. Spacey has combined film roles with running the Old Vic since 2003, appearing in several of the theater’s productions.
His Richard is easily the most memorable of his Old Vic roles. It’s sure to be one of London’s hits of the summer, and will likely be an equally hot ticket when it lands at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music next year after an international tour.
One of a quartet of early Shakespeare plays chronicling England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses, “Richard III” can be a confusing slice of history for modern audiences, full of feuding Yorkists and Lancastrians with mix-and-match titles.
But it remains a fascinating character study of an autocrat’s rise and fall, and Spacey tackles it with subtlety and gusto. Mendes gives him the standard physical trappings of Shakespeare’s deformed antihero, a leg encased in a brace, a walking stick, a hump. But the overall impression is one of strength, vitality, an energy that can be both terrifying and captivating.
Spacey’s Richard is the quickest, liveliest, most mesmerizing person on stage, alternately terrifying and seducing the viewer with the force of his performance. He is by turns a madman, a charmer, a joker – there’s even a touch of The Joker, a sardonic evildoer inviting the audience to root for him.
Spacey captures the ruthlessness, wiles and guile required of a successful politician, especially an autocrat, and paints a terribly plausible picture of how dictators win power.
Mendes’ production –given a vaguely sinister, lightly Orwellian setting, all brick and concrete and bare light bulbs – steers a clear course through the internecine drama. It is in modern dress but unspecific about its exact setting, which allows Spacey to channel touches of dictators through the ages. There is a touch of the sinister charm of Moammar Gadhafi as he chivvies courtiers and rallies the public behind him with an expert display of false humility. In the famous final scenes, the desperate man shouting “My kingdom for a horse” evokes Hitler in his bunker.
The play is inevitably a bit of a one-man show that lags a little whenever Spacey is offstage.
But there’s memorable work from a supporting cast that includes Chuk Iwuji as Richard’s clever – but not quite clever enough – ally Buckingham and Haydn Gwynne as Richard’s sister-in-law. As mother of the two princes who stand between Richard and the throne, she goes through defiance, impotence, grief, rage and cold fury with powerful restraint.
Gemma Jones brings a touch of stoic dignity as the wild-eyed, elderly Queen Margaret, a widow who curses all the play’s warring men. And Chandler Williams is memorable as Richard’s betrayed brother, the Duke of Clarence, giving dignity and feeling to a character usually remembered for the punch-line nature of his death: “Drowned in a butt (vat) of Malmsey” wine.
“Richard III” is the final production of the Bridge Project, which for the last three years has brought together British and American actors on classic plays directed by Mendes.
It runs at the Old Vic until Sept. 11, and then tours to Greece, Hong Kong, Spain and Singapore before opening in New York in January.