Absolutely Nothing To See : Richard III comes to Hong Kong, by Samantha TaylorPosted: September 25, 2011
It’s not often you get a really big Hollywood actor show up in Hong Kong to perform Shakespeare on stage and, ordinarily, this wouldn’t have me automatically scrambling to the ticket hotline. But when the actor is Kevin Spacey as Richard III and the Director is Sam Mendes, you think ‘American Beauty’, and hope for similar magic. Sort of.
Actually what really sold me on this was because it is the very last production from The Bridge Project: a “three year transatlantic partnership” between The Old Vic (of which Spacey is Artistic Director), BAM ( Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Neal Street Productions (Mendes’ production company). I don’t pretend to be a thespian, and in fact had never seen Richard III, let alone read it. But with a very vague notion of the plot (mostly lifted from study notes on the internet) and a bunch of glowing reviews gleaned from the British press in my mind, it was clear this was not to be missed and so I was thrilled to get a couple of the few remaining available seats, right up front in the circle. Result.
I won’t pretend I didn’t struggle at times with the dialogue. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare on the stage and, like most schoolchildren, I’ve even read a few plays too. However, coming to a tragedy like Richard III as a virgin, so to speak, I probably am not the first to assert that unless a) you are currently studying or have studied Shakespeare, in earnest, and of your own volition, at a level higher than GCSE or b) you are Kenneth Branagh; then in the context of a real, live theatrical performance you will understand only about 3/4 of what is spoken; less if the character happens to be facing the other way. Throw in a bunch of symbolic and allegorical references, which would have made perfect sense to Shakespeare’s contemporaries – but would go over most modern heads quicker than a F 16 Phantom at a flyover – and you may understand why, at times, I confess to having felt a little out of my depth. Which is why, occasionally, I allowed myself to get completely distracted by the visual aspects of the play. But I’ll get to that in a moment. You probably want to know what Kev was like.
To briefly sum up the plot: Clever, charming, verbose yet bitter, Machiavellian and power-hungry deformed youngest royal sibling with maternal issues and murderous tendencies, determines to take the throne at all costs. I think. Feel free to draw your contemporary political comparisons because, right now, it seems that despotic dictators seem to be very on trend, and of course, there were parallels aplenty. It was particularly fitting therefore that Mendes should choose a modern setting, with references to Mussolini and Hitler and obviously Gaddafi, juxtoposed with more contemporary politicos (Alastair Campbell perhaps?) expert in the art of spin.
Now clearly I’m no authority on Richard III, but if, like me, you’ve seen a few Kevin Spacey films, then you can probably appreciate why Mendes was keen to get him in calipers, strap on the prosthetic hump and watch him go. Spacey has totally cornered the market in fascinatingly complex and ruthlessly charming bad guys with a devilish sense of humour, unhindered by conventional morality ; and his exceptional resume surely seems merely a lengthy preparation for this part? In short, on paper at least, Spacey is a man born to play Richard III.
It’s probably obvious that I wouldn’t have built you up like this to say he was rubbish, and in fact you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming he was utterly brilliant, completely mesmerising, and every bit as charismatic, seductive and wickedly manipulative as I’d hoped. Oh and very funny. From the moment he took to the stage in the first scene to address the audience directly; alone, clearly inebriated, while slumped in a chair wearing a paper party hat – a Pathe style newsreel of his elder brother’s coronation projected behind him – it was clear he had entered into the part utterly, with mind body and spirit; the sheer physicality of which was a huge surprise. Aside from the verbal dexterity required to sucker in, terrify or simply bamboozle anyone in his path, here is a bloke with more than his fair share of physical deformities, and yet Spacey leapt and lurched around like a force of nature with the kind of explosive, dominating, masculine energy that made Richard’s inexorable rise utterly believable. He owned that stage and, damn it, he was sexy (please don’t get me started on the mirrored shades and army uniform). If I was Lady Anne and he’d pinned me to the wall, I’m pretty sure I’d have capitulated, despite the tiny detail of him murdering her husband. And therein lies the terrifying rub; how easily we can all be seduced, and at what cost? With the benefit of hindsight, history and distance we all, rightly, condemn warmongers and dictators, but, shift your perspective nearer to that vortex of power and it’s not completely unfeasible to imagine how easy it must be to, quite literally, lose your head.
But back to the more tangible stuff. I loved the set. Think stark, grey bleached oak floorboards and walls inset only with a series of doors, each carrying a chalked x to signify yet another condemned figure. A wonky table here, a bed there, each scene contained nothing but the barest props and probably should have made me think how clever Mendes and Set Designer Tom Piper were to strip things down quite so radically, but more often had me thinking how great this would look if translated to a Plain English kitchen.
Then, of course, the costumes. I’d read that the costumes were ‘modern’ and indeed, overall, they were, but the references actually spanned both ends of the previous century and the subtleties were brilliant. Queen Elizabeth 1st and Lady Anne both rocked a kind of ultra pared down gothicism reminiscent of early McQueen or Antonio Berardi but with Elizabeth firmly channeling the 1940’s whilst the younger Ann’s costumes had a racier, Flapper edge. The Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brother, was all pre-war 30’s Aristo in cravats and smoking jackets, until brutally murdered, as was Richard’s distant and unloving Mother (with some rather lovely floaty cowl-necked numbers) who was clearly partly at the root of his issues (you can be sure a woman is to blame for something). There were obvious Jack-booted references to Richard’s increasingly militaristic ambitions, but with some Gaddafi and Amin-esque nuances (those mirrored shades and some seriously heavy epaulettes). But the most powerful visual metaphor employed had to be the suits; slick, sharp and unambiguous in their representation of modernity, they were an effective reminder that spin and manoeuvering are still at the heart of politics and power, and thus beware the wolf in a Savile Row suit.
Stand out performances? Well the entire cast were great, but the women were all fantastic. Haydn Gwynne perfect as the strong, clever, but ultimately helpless Queen Elizabeth and Gemma Jones (who played Bridget Jones‘ Mum in the movie) was a particular favourite as the old Queen Margaret, widow of dead King Henry IV, and Mother of murdered King Edward. She actually had few lines, bar to dole out embittered curses to Richard, but mostly would hover about each time a murder occurred like a disheveled harridan: an unwanted, scornful presence that had prophesied each of them. Some actors just exude gravitas and, like Spacey, she simply had a magic quality that owned the stage.
One unexpected, but quite compelling distraction was to gawp occasionally at the two percussionists. I don’t know how usual it is to accompany Shakespeare with live percussion but I thought it worked brilliantly, and I think this is where Spacey and Mendes’ filmic sensibilities probably came in to play; creating an additional atmospheric layer of tension more usually associated with movies and TV.
There was just one probably slightly irrational niggle. It should have come as no surprise that an Anglo-American cast would have a mixed bag of English and American accents. My problem was not of either but more when they occasionally converged in a sort of mid-Atlantic, strained hybrid. It drove me potty to hear otherwise fairly clipped attempts at ‘posh Shakespearean’ English, only to murder it with the likes of ‘Bucking-Ham‘ with the emphasis on the Ham like a deli offering. I realise this is acutely pedantic, but it’s the kind of thing that really bugs me, if not others. My husband muttered something about it being necessary for proper annunciation but to me it was about as excruciating as Hugh Grant trying to estuarise his native English Toff accent in About A Boy. For me, some of the more interesting characters were those that spoke with clear regional accents – from both sides of the pond – and they annunciated perfectly. That, and the bladder-slackening length (almost 3 1/2 hours) were minor gripes when it was clear we’d just witnessed what will undoubtedly go down as one of the great performances of this despicable, but ultimately fascinating, character.