There was a delightful performance at the BAM Harvey Theatre the other night, when there ought to have been half a dozen. Like the last time I saw a star turn in Shakespeare’s Richard III, the rest of the cast was not at the same level as the title character. One might think Kevin Spacey would have enjoyed better sparring partners, but apparently he and his co-producer of the Bridge Project, director Sam Mendes, preferred safe if disappointing casting.
OK, that’s my grouse. But I do want to be clear here. This is a fine production in more ways than it’s not. I have complaints. I have disappointments. When have I not? But the Bridge Project’s production of Richard III is more than worth seeing. Get thee to the BAM Harvey Theatre between now and March 4th [http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=3692]. But get there on time, because this starts at 7:30 sharp, in Brooklyn, and you will not be allowed to interrupt Mr. Spacey’s first soliloquy. Nor do you want to miss it.
The company is professional. They are all skilled at speaking verse, they’re all playing the appropriate characters in the play (out of its own time and more or less in ours). But they’re not taking that final leap of faith; it’s as if their characters are not in life or death situations. Except they are.
Technically this is a splendid, polished production staged with a cinematographer’s eye. Scenic design by Tom Piper is deceptively simple, a set of dusty walls of doors allowing for the possibility of French farce. In the second act those walls of doors open up, angling toward the infinity in which these characters continue to live on over 500 years after the deaths of their originals. And in case you wonder who those people are, the name of the primary character in a given scene is projected — rather like locations in the television series “Fringe” — on the set. These projections (among others by Jon Driscoll) are particularly pleasing, telling us who Richard will be speaking to, besides the audience: The Council, or The Public, or Lady Anne. Lighting by Paul Pyant is atmospheric. Sound (Gareth Fry) and music (Mark Bennett, with coordination and direction by Curtis Moore) are excellent, with exciting drumming exactly when needed, building, building to an explosive crescendo in some scenes; alternately subtle, frightening undertones in others.
The production is intellectually satisfying, with many good ideas well executed, while some were not. I dreaded most the dream sequence of Richmond (the future Henry VII) and Richard III on Bosworth Field. This was set up to look like an informal dinner party with the present and future kings on opposite ends of the table. Orchestration good, solos not so good.
Kevin Spacey is terrific as Richard, funny, snide, clever, deeply damaged, and over the top (sometimes a bit too far over). His deformed body crabs sideways, a shriveled left arm wrapped in leather, a brace supporting his crooked, in-turned left leg. His movements are astonishing throughout the play. He never loses this physical characterization, which takes extraordinary discipline and is doubtless quite painful. This is a bravura performance before we even talk about his superlative use of language. His phrasing reaches the heights of Frank Sinatra, his feel for the poetry and prose is flawless. His asides to us, his gawping amazement of what he can get over on his relations and fellow peers of the rocky realm, he gleefully shares with us in the audience. He's a hoot and a half.
Three hours and close to a half — with an intermission after the first two hours — is a long time, and it almost worked. However, the unevenness of the casting is the downfall of this, the last of the Bridge Project’s productions. It’s the first production in this three-year experiment that relies on a single high-quality performer; it’s the only season with just one play instead of two in repertory. It seems poor-spirited of Messrs. Spacey and Mendes to not put blockbuster Shakespearean performers opposite Mr. Spacey.
Chuk Iwuji is Buckingham, but is he? Is he a leader of men, a soldier? No, this Buckingham is just a panderer. Lords Hastings (Jack Ellis) and Stanley (Michael Rudko), and the Bishop of Ely (Andrew Long), are these the most powerful men in the land? Do they start in confidence and shrink in fear of the ever-strengthening monster Richard reveals? Alas, no. In Richard’s England, losing your position on the Council means losing your head, but these guys behave as if they are at board meetings they don’t really need to care about.
In this production the women had a lot to say — scenes and monologues that Shakespeare wrote but which are often edited away. It was interesting to see them, well staged, yet somehow unfinished. The ages of women in Richard III are well represented:
- The youngest, Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth, does not speak and isn’t in the script — some productions include her, some do not. I still recall a (free) production by the erstwhile Riverside Shakespeare Company that included Jacqueline Lucid as a silent but riveting Lady Elizabeth in a production more years ago than I choose to count. This production’s Lady Elizabeth is so far upstage we can barely see her, and yet physically she did the job well.
- Lady Anne, young widow of Prince Edward, is wickedly wooed and won by Richard before he’s king. Annabel Scholey starts off well in the infamous wooing scene, modern, sexy, sassy, but eventually falls a bit short, particularly in her scenes with the other women.
- Queen Elizabeth, King Edward IV’s wife/widow and mother of the princes in the Tower — yes, those Princes — is skillfully played by Haydn Gwynne. She is the most powerful woman on the stage, and gives Spacey a run for his money.
- Duchess of York is the mother of King Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester (later Lord Protector, later Richard III). She has no fond feelings for her son and sings the same sour tune throughout the play. Maureen Anderman hits the right notes, yet is uninspired.
- And finally Queen Margaret, intoned by Gemma Jones, is the widow of the late King Henry VI, mother of Prince Edward, and, historically, dead by the time this play takes place. She does, however, perform the function of personifying the past haunting the present. And Shakespeare wasn’t concerned with history, just a good story.
Almost every scene of this Richard III is a well-staged picture: Publicity stills abound. But too many characters spoke from center and out to us instead of to one another. And no one, including the excellent Ms. Gwynne, was at Mr. Spacey’s level. Yes, I realize the play is called Richard III, but he did not exist in a vacuum. Spacey’s Richard had only weak resistance, since none of the actors seemed to understand their own potential power. The danger they were in did not build, it just appeared. This was too easy a ride for Richard.
And yet....the beat goes on. The play still works. And the drums are great.
Let us be clear. This is Theatre. No one should mistake it for history. Time is compressed and characters do what the dramatic structure requires of them. Their motivations are as the playwright imagines them. Plays are plotted, constructed, wrought. Life (and to a lesser extent, history) just happens. It may be that the weakness of Shakespeare’s play is surrounding Richard with too many weak players. There is no need, though, to compound this in productions that use a powerful player as Richard but don’t give him anyone worthwhile to parry with. The Bridge Project, this great experiment of Mr. Spacey and Mr. Mendes over the past three years, deserved a better closing act.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, sighing for a second play in repertory.