"Richard III” is not a comedy. But you would be hard pressed not to consider it one given the trunk load of winks, smirks, sneers, and other assorted shtick that defines Kevin Spacey’s wickedly disarming performance as the unconscionable conniving titular character. While this final play in Shakespeare’s tetralogy about the Wars of the Roses dramatizes the end of a family feud between the houses of York and Lancaster that lasted 63 years, there is no end to the killing that is done in the wake of the feud. It is also a killer of an entertainment as presented and performed by the Bridge Project now at the BAM’s (Brooklyn Academy of Music) neighboring Harvey Theater.
Audaciously directed by Sam Mendes with a modernist’s eyes and ears originally for London’s the Old Vic, where this production made its debut in June, 2011, Shakespeare’s historically significant play has been cast with both American and English actors — the mission of the Bridge Project.
This is far from the first time that “Richard III” has been conceived as a black comedy and given the world view of him as the devil incarnate. Most directors extend him great liberties as the deformed and demented Richard proceeds to seduce and manipulate the easily duped. Few need to be reminded just how relevant and topical Shakespeare’s political/historical plays remain today. It was no coincidence that the American invasion of Iraq prompted a number of high-profiled productions of “Henry V,” whose plot coils around an unnecessary war that is used as an excuse to help the economy. And you have to be totally blind and deaf not to be aware of the sardonic parallels between the political distortions and diabolical distractions used by Richard in his bid for the throne, and the recent crop of politicos as they brazenly succeed in pulling the wool over the eyes of their constituents.
As perverse a tragic play as you are ever likely to sit through, the contemporary conceits that mark Mendes’s vision sometimes suggest the play may be considered either a vaudeville or a pastiche, styles that easily support the play’s deliciously overt and outrageous villainy. Mendes’s approach isn’t anything that one might call over-reaching or revisionist, but rather it is a further validation of the perspective that other directors have used to stage this play in recent times. In this production, there is a keen sense of watching a modern dictatorship possibly in the Middle East imploding in real time.
I liked the audacity of having the super titles announce each scene, often with the name of the character who was next on Richard’s “to be deleted” list. Other visual cleverness includes the use of a TV screen with news coverage of the royals and what they are up to, and seeing the strap-holding subway riders reading the latest headlines. What fun.
There is the inevitable trace of the grotesque bell-ringer in Spacey’s performance, but he never lets us forget that his clowning is merely a distraction as he claws his way to the throne. Spacey, who has been the artistic director of the Old Vic since 2003 (this is his last season), is an old hand at wry wickedness on stage and in films (“Speed the Plow,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Swimming with Sharks,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”). But he also never lets us forget for a moment how seriously focused is his Richard. Seizing upon Richard’s physical disabilities, Spacey gets plenty of mileage exploiting his leg brace and cane, even stumbling and falling on his way to reach the throne.
It doesn’t appear to me that any attempt was made by either Mendes or Spacey to extract from Shakespeare’s loathsome King yet another corroborating fact by which we may ponder, as historians still do, the true nature of this loathsome tower of pure venom. What we get, however, is full of histrionic, if not exactly historic, accuracy.
Unfortunately few of the supporting actors from either side of the Atlantic are able to hold their ground with Spacey around during the three hours and 15 minutes of unrelieved murder and mayhem. To be fair, the Houses of York and Lancaster are complimented with reasonably competent performances. These include the despair registered by Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and the ravings of Gemma Jones as Henry VI’s widow, Queen Margaret. Jack Ellis as Lord Hastings, Chuk Iwuji as the Duke of Buckingham, and Chandler Williams as Clarence each make positive impressions, as did Annabel Scholey as the ill-fated (who wasn’t?) Lady Anne.
The simple, effective decor, mostly 18 doors that allow for very dramatic exits and entrances, was provided by set designer Tom Piper. The rhythmic playing by the on stage percussionists (also perched in boxes) added aural excitement. Catherine Zuber’s contemporary costumes are mostly dark and muted, but Richard’s military dress uniform is a spectacle.
And while I’m on a rant about the contemporary political relevance of Shakespeare’s plays: Who is so blind not to see how Richard’s self-destructive course was supported and empowered by those unable to see through his feigned religiosity? ***
“Richard III,” through Saturday, March 3, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene. $30 to $158 and beyond. 718-636-4100.