Emerging through a column of smoke at the center of a darkened stage, Ian McKellen delivers the monologue that opens “Richard III” in a tight, intense voice that quickly establishes the production’s chilling tone. Updated to the rise of fascism in the ’30s, Richard Eyre’s staging makes conscious references to such 20th century icons of evil as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Ceausescu.
The result is nearly always fascinating, a mix of contemporary political ideologies and stage effects melded with Shakespeare’s 400-year-old account of a cold-blooded tyrant.
Equally fascinating is McKellen’s performance, an explicit departure, physically and philosophically, from conventional interpretations of the villain. In the end, however, it’s also an unpersuasive performance.
McKellen forgoes the repugnant misshapen hunchback that Richard describes himself to be, favoring instead a mild limp and accenting the character’s useless arm.
Far more important, however, is McKellen’s startlingly cold, alienating portrait. Richard’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the way he woos the audience in much the same outrageously brazen manner that he woos and wins Lady Anne, whose husband and father-in-law he has killed on the battlefield during the War of the Roses.
No such public wooing obtains here. Richard’s asides to the audience and his venomous humor are subsumed in a vicious mendacity that comes across as pure evil.
His rise to power is ruthlessness unmitigated by the charisma and self-deprecating charm we typically associate with Richard.
Moreover, this Richard seems undriven even by ambition. Perhaps taking his cue from that famous opening speech, McKellen plays him as a militarist provoked to his murderous course simply because he’s bored by the prospect of peace. The crown seems practically an afterthought.
The result is a shocking but ultimately unengaging portrait. McKellen’s technique is dazzling, but the performance never amounts to much more than that, making the updating little more than a gimmick. After all, Richard III doesn’t need a fascist’s armband or a throne on a forklift to remind the audience of his contemporary analogs.
Eyre’s humorless production is further weakened by the absence of many actors in the company able to balance Sir Ian’s command of the stage, though this may be the consequence of a mounting that is by now two years old.
Best among a company that is rarely less than competent are Malcolm Sinclair’s sad Clarence, Charlotte Cornwall’s acerbic Queen Elizabeth and Tim McMullan as the assassin Tyrell.
Designers Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Jean Kalman (lighting) have created a stark environment, thrown into relief by rows of hanging brushed metal lighting fixtures and black walls, sometimes drenched in a blood-red light.
The cavernous Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music isn’t a particularly congenial setting, and one often had to strain to hear the actors. This is the first stand in a tour scheduled to move on to Washington, St. Paul, Denver, San Francisco and L.A.