Although the naked lust for royal power driving “Richard III” cannot lift the play into the league of the richer “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s celebrated history play definitely has one thing going for it: A barnstorming leading role. That Kevin Spacey should feast upon it with roaring, show-stealing relish is no surprise. What’s disconcerting about Sam Mendes’s production is that behind Spacey’s sound and fury there is so little else in the way of refreshing insight or drama.
Part of the problem is the anchorless setting. Although the word “NOW” is splashed across the grey curtain at the top of the show, the first thing audiences see is a 1940s-style newsreel of Richard’s brother, the king. And on Tom Piper’s grey-floorboarded set edged with 22 doors, everyone wears tuxedos or contempo men-in-black suits except the women, who largely wear medieval-style robes.
Echoing ancient amid the modern is a valid choice for a play utterly bound up in history, but it still prompts the question, “Where exactly are we?” This lack of specificity undermines the crucial portrayal of the court, its families and factions. Aside from those wearing crowns, the lack of obvious relative status between the characters makes the plotting — in every sense of the word — extremely hard to follow.
Almost all the actors in the production sacrifice detailed journeys for emoting. Quavering or furious, they push their voices too hard to show the end result of what their character is feeling, but there’s little sense of being led through who they are or how and why they got there.
Matters are weakened further by Mendes’ addition of an eerie underscore of untuned percussion. In cinematic style, it ramps up a sense of threat, but theatrically it weakens what’s being said by creating so generalized a “doom-laden” tone.
In a role filled with monologues, Spacey’s trademark eyeballing and handling of the audience comes into its own. He makes the audience complicit, repeatedly raising laughs by switching between public statement and private sharing of his shamelessness with lightning timing.
His degree of outward display is, however, problematic. Unable to resist showing off his character’s supposedly hidden motives, he overdoses on oozing sincerity. But making his behavior so flagrantly false to his enemies makes everyone around him look stupid for not noticing.
Spacey’s performance reaches such a pitch that he spends most of the last hour enraged and shouting. Richard himself may listen to no one, but the actor must, and Spacey shows almost no sign of responding to those around him. And if he doesn’t listen to them, the audience won’t either.
The situation reaches its nadir in his set-to with Queen Elizabeth (haughty Haydn Gwynne) as he tries to convince her to let him marry her daughter despite having murdered almost all of the rest of her family. Because he’s ranting so much, his character sounds out of control, the reverse of what should be happening. To keep up with him, Gwynne shouts too, so instead of being a brilliantly paced piece of persuasion, it feels like an undetailed slanging match.
The oddest thing about the evening is that almost all the directorial flourishes — the stylized portrayal of death by the passing of a hand over the eyes, Richard’s sudden savage poking of Hastings’ severed head, the use of almost the entire company as drummers in ceremonial and battle scenes — are repeats. Mendes used all these, plus several of the design ideas down to black/grey visuals, multiple doors and balloons, in his 1992 Royal Shakespeare Company production.
During the course of a career, directors often return to plays because age offers them new insight. Mendes’s movie experience shows up in the naturalistic clutter of furniture and props that have to be taken on and off in old-fashioned blackouts, as well as in the splitscreen-style staging of the intercut battle scenes. But otherwise this feels like Mendes on auto-pilot, merely providing a showcase for his star.
Spacey’s grandstanding will guarantee success for the ten-month world tour, but as the finale of the impressively transatlantic Bridge Project, it’s a disappointment.