Kevin Spacey has played a gallery of nefarious roles in his time, but none matches the villainy of his current stage undertaking of Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of the vilest creations in the Bard’s lofty canon. Spacey thrives and flourishes in the play, most of the time giving a broad performance in this sprawling, modern-dress production of the old melodrama, directed by Sam Mendes, which keeps the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater ablaze with theatrical excitement for three-plus hours.
This is the final installment of The Bridge Project, which has been a three-year collaboration between BAM, London’s Old Vic Theatre and Neal Street Productions. It has cast actors from the United States and the United Kingdom in a variety of classic plays that have played not only in theaters in the United States and Britain, but have toured the globe. Mendes, who guided Spacey to a Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty in 1999, has staged Richard III for all its bombast and bluster and lets his star take free rein here as the crippled king. Spacey, at 52, is more than up to the difficult part of the evil Richard, though his performance has some bad moments when he allows himself to go over the top with his rages and muggings. He hits a momentary nadir in act two when in a filmed sequence Richard is seen knelling between two faux clergymen praying and pretending he doesn’t want to be king. Here he goes too far rolling his eyes and howling in a throe old fashioned of ham acting.
Granted, it is an easy pit to fall into since Richard is really a solo show in which nobody matters much except Richard, though Mendes has surrounded Spacey with a cast of first-rate players. This problem caused dramatist Colley Cibber, in 1699, to convert Shakespeare’s play into a popular one-man vehicle. Any actor taking on the challenge of playing the larger-than-life Richard takes on a delicate balancing act between serving Shakespeare and mocking Shakespeare in order to keep the audience's interest in a character who, as the play progresses, becomes more and more abominable.
Spacey’s performance as Richard begins low key with him sitting in a chair with paper crown askew on his head and blowing a party horn looking like some lonely abandoned orphan on New Year’s Eve. He begins by reciting the opening lines of the play, ruminating his fortunes: "Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York."
When he finishes the great speech he then rises from the chair and we get our first look at the afflicted Richard: distorted physically, hunchbacked as well as crippled, bitter at the world yet not without a sardonic, even frolicsome glint in his eyes as he stumbles forth into a appalling career of crime.
Spacey is at his most persuasive in an early scene wherein Richard challenges, then declares his love for Lady Ann (Annabel Scholey) as she escorts the body of King Henry VI, her father-in-law whom Richard has murdered. Scholey plays Lady Ann with not a hint of sentimentality. At first she is appalled at Richard’s antics, snarling at him and spitting in his face until his persistence and fawning wiles conquer her good sense and Richard sends her shuddering out the door to his own home.
The play lunges ahead from one plot to the next bloody deed with Ringmaster Spacey glowering, grinning, cutting down anything in his path on his way to the throne. With Spacey’s sheer vitality and force always pushing the play forward like a runaway train. Though once he achieves his goal he seems pitiful as he wrestles for some justification.
Besides Scholey’s fine supporting performance, Spacey gets excellent help from Gemma Jones, who presents a sharp vignette of the half-crazed old Queen Margaret, widow of Henry IV, whose curses punctuate the play as a reminder of Richard’s murderous march; Maureeen Anderman as Richard’s dismayed mother, whose long disdain for her son could be the underlying cause of his barbaric behavior; and Haydn Gwynne as the outraged Queen Elizabeth. Chuk Inuji is exemplary as the Duke of Buckingham, as is Chandler Williams as Richard’s doomed brother George, the Duke of Clarence.
With scenic designer Tom Piper, costume designer Catherine Zuber and lighting designer Paul Pyant, the production looks elegantly minimal, and throughout, Mark Bennett’s original music helps point up the play’s drama. This Richard III brings The Bridge Project to stirring conclusion.