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.