Richard III, Old Vic, London

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

There are two excellent, and very different, accounts of Shakespeare’s Richard III on the London stage at present. While Edward Hall’s gory production continues at Hampstead, Sam Mendes’ spare, sinister, modern-dress staging opens at the Old Vic. It’s much less bloody, but no less chilling for that. And it is driven, from the outset, by Kevin Spacey’s superb, sardonic Richard.

Spacey begins the evening crowned and enthroned. But his crown is a paper party hat and his throne an armchair, as he surveys, with distaste, newsreel of his brother’s coronation. He extinguishes the scenes of merriment with a snap, zapping them off with the remote control, and gives us a tight little smile before launching into his bitter opening speech. Before he has even uttered a word, we can see how he feels.

It is a tremendous physical performance. Spacey’s Richard is twisted like an olive-tree, his leg encased in a calliper, yet still he scuttles with surprising, crab-like speed, and his head and eyes work with the suddenness of a reptile. He is mordantly funny and can switch moods at will – he reminds us that Richard is an actor and one who invites us to applaud his skill.

Richard’s complicity with the audience is one of the pleasures of Mendes’ production. The audience is Richard’s only confidant, and the staging emphasises his loneliness and psychopathic self-loathing. This Richard has made a conscious decision to stoke his bitterness and stifle his conscience. Spacey lacks the feline silkiness and sheer cold evil that can really chill you, but he skilfully bridges the gap between psychological credibility and entertainment.

And the word “conscience”, often repeated in the play, seems to leap to the fore in this production (the final outing for Mendes’ Anglo-American Bridge Project). It’s on the lips of the murderers as they struggle to kill Richard’s first victim, Clarence, and, though Richard frequently scorns it, conscience destroys him in the end. Mendes makes clear that this is a play about reckoning and retribution, as the grievances from years of warfare pile into the plot, giving Richard rivalries to exploit. Mendes’ staging revels in the stark, episodic nature of the play, preceding each scene by flashing up the name of the character who is about to feel the heat, and emphasises Shakespeare’s astute analysis of the path to autocratic power. It’s melodramatic in places – but then so is the play.

A beautifully orchestrated ensemble conveys the darkening mood, as they mutely watch Richard’s progress, while a succession of men grasp his treachery just a moment too late: Chandler Williams’ urbane Clarence, Jack Ellis’s bluff Hastings and Chuk Iwuji’s shrewd, nimble Buckingham. Meanwhile the women unite in powerless grief, Haydn Gwynne making a desolate Elizabeth and Gemma Jones a majestic, embittered Margaret. This is a gripping spectacle, staged on Tom Piper’s nightmarish set with its multiple doors – an apt setting for a drama with so many untimely exits.

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