Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Richard-III-893Chandler Williams and Kevin Spacey in The Bridge Project’s ‘Richard III’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – Kevin Spacey has played a gallery of nefarious roles in his time, but none matches the villainy of his current stage undertaking, which is Shakespeare’s "Richard III." The lead character is one of the vilest creations in the Bard’s lofty canon. Mr. Spacey thrives and flourishes in the play most of the time, giving a broad performance in this sprawling, modern-dress production of the old melodrama. It is directed by Sam Mendes and keeps the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater ablaze with theatrical excitement for three-plus hours.

This is the final installment of The Bridge Project, which has been a three-year collaboration among BAM, London’s Old Vic Theatre and Neal Street Productions. The Bridge Project has cast actors from the United States and United Kingdom in a variety of classic plays, which have been staged not only in theaters in the United States and Britain, but which have toured the globe.

Mr. Mendes, who guided Mr. Spacey to a Best Actor Oscar for "American Beauty" in 1999, has staged "Richard III" for all its bombast and bluster, and he lets his star take free rein here as the crippled king. Mr. Spacey, at 52, is more than up to the difficult part of the evil Richard, though his performance has some bad moments when he allows himself to go over the top with his rages and muggings. He hits a momentary nadir in Act Two when, in a filmed sequence, Richard is seen kneeling between two faux clergymen, praying and pretending he doesn’t want to be king. Here he goes too far, rolling his eyes and howling in a throe of old-fashioned ham acting.

Granted, it is an easy pit to fall into since "Richard III" is really a solo show in which nobody matters much except Richard, although Mr. Mendes has surrounded Mr. Spacey with a cast of first-rate players. This problem caused dramatist Colley Cibber, in 1699, to convert Shakespeare’s play into a popular one-man vehicle. Any actor playing the larger-than-life Richard takes on a delicate balancing act between serving Shakespeare and mocking Shakespeare in order to keep the audience’s interest in a character who, as the play progresses, becomes more and more abominable.

Mr. Spacey’s performance begins in a low-key fashion: Richard is sitting in a chair with paper crown askew on his head and blowing a party horn, looking like some lonely, abandoned orphan on New Year’s Eve. He begins by reciting the opening lines of the play, ruminating on his fortunes:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by
this sun of York

When he finishes the great speech, he rises from the chair, and we get our first look at the afflicted Richard: distorted physically, hunchbacked as well as crippled, bitter at the world, yet not without a sardonic, even frolicsome glint in his eyes as he stumbles forth into an appalling career of crime.

Mr. Spacey is at his most persuasive in an early scene wherein Richard challenges, then declares his love for Lady Ann (Annabel Scholey) as she escorts the body of King Henry VI, her father-in-law, whom Richard has murdered. Ms. Scholey plays Lady Ann with not a hint of sentimentality. At first, she is appalled at Richard’s antics, snarling at him and spitting in his face until his persistence and fawning wiles conquer her good sense and Richard sends her shuddering out the door to his own home.

The play lunges ahead from one plot to the next bloody deed with Ringmaster Spacey glowering, grinning and cutting down anything in his path on his way to the throne. Mr. Spacey’s sheer vitality and force push the play forward like a runaway train, though once he achieves his goal, he seems pitiful as he wrestles for some justification.

Besides Ms. Scholey’s fine supporting performance, Mr. Spacey gets excellent help from Gemma Jones, who presents a sharp vignette of the half-crazed old Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI; her curses punctuate the play as a reminder of Richard’s murderous march. Also helping are Maureen Anderman as Richard’s dismayed mother, whose long disdain for her son could be the underlying cause of his barbaric behavior; and Haydn Gwynne as the outraged Queen Elizabeth. Chuk Inuji is exemplary as the Duke of Buckingham, as is Chandler Williams as Richard’s doomed brother George, the Duke of Clarence.

With scenic designer Tom Piper, costume designer Catherine Zuber and lighting designer Paul Pyant, the production looks elegantly minimal; and throughout, Mark Bennett’s original music helps point up the play’s drama. This "Richard III" brings The Bridge Project to stirring conclusion.

Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.