William Shakespeare: Richard III, The Old Vic, London (Director: Sam Mendes)

When Kevin Spacey, Academy Award winning actor and artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, and Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes teamed up two years ago to launch the Bridge Project – bringing together talent from the UK and America and performing both at the Old Vic and in New York City – it was clear that Spacey would star in the project’s final production. There is no surprise in it being a Shakespeare play – 4 of the five Bridge productions have featured plays by the bard from Stratford. So, looking for a role for Spacey to play, Richard III was an obvious choice. It is one of the role great actors have to play at some stage and has even gained in stature through big screen performances by the likes of Al Pacino and Sir Ian McKellen in recent years. So Spacey is Richard, complete with hunchback and crippled limbs, ready to strike, overwhelm and snare the audience.

Let there be no doubt about it: The play’s stars proves fully up to the task. From the first word of the famous opening monologue he commands the stage and indeed the entire theatre. Spacey shouts and whispers, charms and bruises, is vulnerable and brutal, a smart schemer and a amd psychopath. The changes are fast and easy, their unpredictability making this Richard one of the scariest ever seen.

And yet, Spacey and Mendes go further: Their Richard is not only a master manipulator, a conniving pursuer of power – he is a showman, a puppeteer, a presenter in this theatre of the worst of human nature. It is to Spacey’s and Mendes‘ credit that they have their own interpretation of Shakespeare’s play: Their idea of Richard III is that of a demonstration of the mechanisms of power. Thus, Richard becomes less of a power-hungry dictator (which he still is) and more of some kind of showman who’s showing us how power works and how people fall into its traps. While Richard schemes and manipulates, he shows us how it’s done, adding a meta level to Shakespeare’s tale of greed and evil.

Neither Mendes nor Spacey are interested in psychology, their Richard is not a study of a psychopath, a desparate and often hurt creature, an ego-manic or a complex-ridden outcast. They do not want to explain or understand Richard – they are more interested in the universal nature of what he does and shows.

It is the surprisingly many funny moments in which the production is at its strongest. Mendes creates wonderfully satirical scenes such as the one in which Buckingham and Richard manipulate the citizens into persuading Richard to accept the crown. Mendes and Spacey turn this into a sequence straight from the repertoire of American TV evangelists, laying bare how easy it is to fool those who want to be fooled. It is here, too, that the play is at its most modern and relevant for the mechanisms Shakespeare shows – and which he has Richard explain repeatedly in his many addresses to the audience – can be seen at work in our world daily.

However, a play like this, especially when it has a star like Spacey, has an inherent risk: It can be so dominated by its star that he dwarfs everything else. Mendes and Spacey do not avoid this danger and so the play is best when Spacey is on stage. Together they create powerfully dramatic scenes such as the one just before the battle when Richard and his enemy Richmond are presented in what seems to be the equivalent of a split screen, occupying the same table, a remote ping pong match that heightens the tensions and creates a strong feeling of inevitability.

Unfortunately, when Spacey is not on stage, the play takes a plunge, becomes static, uninspired, stale. Gemma Jones‘ Margaret adds some bitter and vengeful flourish but the rest of the cast is pale.

There is another problem: While Spacey and Mendes highlight the satirical aspects of the play, they are far from consistent. When it turns serious, when the high Shakespearian tone kicks in with all its pathos, the production loses its balance. The pathos becomes hollow, the sound artificial, the acting wooden. As fresh as the satire is as stale and lifeless becomes the tragedy. So when it aims for the tragic the productions repeatedly falls into the ridiculous, not far above the level of a school play. The uninspired set with its grey brick walls and many doors adds to the impression of something not quite alive.

So in the end, the final production of the Bridge Project leaves mixed feelings: on the one hand a great Kevin Spacey and a wonderful satire about the workings of power, on the other a stale and museum-like form of tragedy that is old-fashioned in the worst possible way. A truly inconsistent production that lacks the courage to follow its highly interesting and very effective interpretation through to the end and falls back too often on clichés that had better been left on their dusty shelves.

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