×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Richard II

Shakespeare's history play itself makes history for marking the Bardic debut of Kevin Spacey, discounting his lone spear-carrying gig in Central Park two decades ago. Whether Trevor Nunn's production of "Richard II" will rewrite the history of Spacey's Old Vic regime, now in its sophomore sesh, is unknown.

With:
Richard II - Kevin Spacey Henry Bolingbroke - Ben Miles Duke of York - Peter Eyre Duchess of York - Susan Tracy John of Gaunt - Julian Glover Queen Isabel - Genevieve O'Reilly Earl of Northumberland - Oliver Cotton Mowbray, Earl of Salisbury - Sean Baker Duke of Aumerle - Oliver Kieran-Jones Bagot - William Osborne

Shakespeare’s history play itself makes history for marking the Bardic debut of Kevin Spacey, discounting his lone spear-carrying gig in Central Park two decades ago. Whether Trevor Nunn’s production of “Richard II” will rewrite the history of Spacey’s Old Vic regime, now in its sophomore sesh, is unknown. Like Spacey’s perf, the staging is impressive without being particularly moving, its commitment to reinvigorating a difficult text never in doubt.

But those anticipating the dying fall that uniquely characterizes Richard II’s downward trajectory will wait in vain: The actor works hard, at times furiously so, and manages for the most part to sustain a crisp English accent across three hours-plus. Yet there’s a mournful register to Richard, the man and the play, that remains unsung. It’s as if those involved were playing only half the score.

Nunn’s modern-dress approach recalls his previous Old Vic “Hamlet,” whose tennis-playing Gertrude finds a kindred spirit of sorts in a Queen Isabel (Genevieve O’Reilly) seen posing for photo shoots. In most other ways, however, this “Richard II” is at determined, even belligerent odds with a play that has always registered as one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical, only to come across here as cold, harsh and oddly unforgiving.

It could be argued that a more sentimental approach wouldn’t tally with the staging’s realpolitik. What is Spacey’s volatile, arrogant Richard, after all, but the Tony Blair to the would-be Gordon Brown of Ben Miles’ suited, unsmiling Bolingbroke? Videos flank the stage, repeating key speeches with different emphases and soundbites as befits a study in power shifts duly transposed to our age of spin. (That is, when the videos work: An areawide power surge on press night wreaked havoc with video and lighting cues for much of the first act.)

The production sells short or, more accurately, just doesn’t take an interest in the belated humanity of a divinely anointed ruler who discovers, to his deathly cost, what it means to be a man. By contrast with the self-infatuated versifying Richards proffered of late by Ralph Fiennes and Mark Rylance, Spacey doesn’t speak the language when he can bark it. In firm voice throughout, thesp captures Richard’s casual drollery (“So much for that,” he says after honoring the death of John of Gaunt) without that sense of a monarch sliding none too gently toward something like madness.

If Spacey can’t quite show us Richard’s soul cracking wide open, he’s too skilled a showman not to fascinate throughout. In the early scenes, the actor makes a witty occupant of the accoutrements of power, moving daintily about the stage in royal garb that can be tossed off after-hours, as it were. (Away from the spotlight, this Richard frequents private clubs in the company of Oliver Kieran-Jones’ androgynous Aumerle.)

Later, leaping atop a radiator in a last-ditch grasp at glory, he brings a deadpan vanity to a ruler who sounds every bit the film star, remarking into a mirror that he sees “no deeper wrinkles yet.”

Indeed, Nunn’s emphasis on a society given over to perpetual display tallies implicitly with audience curiosity about Spacey’s substantial risk; though classically trained, he is one movie name not previously known for his work in the Bard, and cutting his teeth in London ups the ante further still.

And lest this “Richard” seem a one-man band, Spacey is generous (and shrewd) enough to let senior British thesps Julian Glover (John of Gaunt) and Peter Eyre (Duke of York) run away with scenes that find the pathos missing elsewhere: Gaunt’s great descant on Britain’s decline has rarely acquired such gravitas as a sad-faced Glover lends it here. Miles parades about as an apparatchik Bolingbroke, which is one way of holding your own amid Richard’s penchant for poetry.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design — all sliding panels and sleek surfaces — gives us the world as corporate boardroom, a fractious populace baying at the gates outside. (The videos show a citizenry hell-bent on riot.) You look on admiringly at a vision of a play complete within itself that misses out one part: Richard’s eyes, we hear, might be “full of tears,” but it remains telling that ours are not.

Popular on Variety

Richard II

Old Vic, London; 997 seats; £42.50 $75 top

Production: An Old Vic Theater Company presentation of the play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Trevor Nunn.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Fergus O'Hare; video design, Dick Straker, Sven Ortel. Opened, reviewed Oct. 4, 2005. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Richard II - Kevin Spacey Henry Bolingbroke - Ben Miles Duke of York - Peter Eyre Duchess of York - Susan Tracy John of Gaunt - Julian Glover Queen Isabel - Genevieve O'Reilly Earl of Northumberland - Oliver Cotton Mowbray, Earl of Salisbury - Sean Baker Duke of Aumerle - Oliver Kieran-Jones Bagot - William OsborneWith: Glyn Williams, David Weston, Mark Tandy, Alistair Robins, Iain Mitchell, Steven Miller, Ciaran McIntyre, Sidney Livingstone, David Leon, Jack James, David Dawson, Naomi Capron, Kieran Bew, Lewis Barfoot, David Collings.

More Legit

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

  • Jagged Little Pill Business of Broadway

    Listen: How 'Jagged Little Pill' Will Rock Broadway

    “Jagged Little Pill” wasn’t originally written with Broadway in mind — but the songs on Alanis Morissette’s smash-hit 1995 album do exactly what good musical theater songs should do, according to the upcoming show’s creators and producers. Listen to this week’s podcast below: The team explained why on Variety‘s theater podcast, “Stagecraft,” in an episode [...]

  • Stephen Moore

    Stephen Moore, 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Android, 'Doctor Who' Actor, Dies at 81

    Stephen Moore, best known for his roles as the paranoid android Marvin in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” radio series and the Silurian Eldane in “Doctor Who,” has died. He was 81. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” producer Dirk Maggs confirmed Moore’s death Saturday on Twitter, writing, “Our dear friend Stephen Moore has [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content