Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shakespeare Notebook: Richard III

The Bridge Project at BAM
written by William Shakespeare

directed by Sam Mendes

January 20, 2012

From his opening monologue, when he thwacks the brace on his leg as if disgusted at his own frailty, Kevin Spacey plays Shakespeare's twisted duke as a man crippled by self-loathing. He snarls defensively at his mother, who holds a Freudian power over him by neither loving him nor disowning him. He stumbles at his own coronation then smacks the hand that lends assistance. And in the character's final, nightmare soliloquy, when he claims, “Richard loves Richard”, he weeps at his lack of conviction. In Spacey's rich psychological interpretation, Richard's malignance, as well as his superhuman energy, is a displacement of self-hatred upon the world. He's quick to get offended—you've rarely seen such a sensitive Richard. It's as if, despite all those soliloquies, Richard can't let himself reflect or he'll realize he's both the source and ultimate object of his fury.

Kevin Spacey kills as Richard III
photo credit: Joan Marcus
Maybe to set off the ferocity of Spacey's performance, the rest of this Richard III is restrained and balanced. Sam Mendes takes his direction from the play's first word: “Now”, populating the English court with modern politicians who preen for photo ops in double-vented suits. The Republican presidential campaign will see its reflection in the vicious in-fighting of the House of York. Richard's ally Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji, smooth) is recast as a campaign manager, building support by smearing rivals and staging rallies filled with sanctimony. But like most of Mendes' stagework, the show's execution lacks physicality. It doesn't help that the stage design, like so many in modern theater, could serve for any of Shakespeare's dramas. A dozen actors enter from as many doors; thumped drums designate martial moments and synthesizers eerie ones. Fortunately, Mendes' cool approach and conventional design make Spacey's fierce performance look even stronger.


Spacey's singular take on Richard Crookback reminds me of one pleasure of Shakespeare: each play's unending yield of new themes and approaches. Till this production, I never saw how Shakespeare uses the Christian concept of doomsday in
Richard. The Endtime is on everyone's mind, from the murderers who worry about Judgment Day to Richard himself, who swears by “the time to come” (IE the afterlife). The accumulation of apocalyptic references contribute to the play's tone and filter deep into the structure. It turns the climactic battle into Armageddon, recasting Richard as Satan and Richmond (AKA Henry Tudor) as Christ. Richmond uses the rhetoric of holy war, he wages battle on behalf of peace, and he ushers into the kingdom an era of harmony. Just as Armageddon would be the end of history, Richard III ends Shakespeare's first tetrology of history plays. So its eschatological structure is probably deliberate.

Shakespeare wrote
Richard early in his career, which seems obvious when you notice how clumsy and self-conscious he can be about applying poetic devices. The opening speech breaks easily into stanzas, each beginning with “Now” and then with “I, who…”; Richard and Lady Anne fall into a stichomythic pattern, underscoring the success of his seduction; Margaret's curse grows more and more formal, to suggest a ritual's ornate power; and all these examples come from act one! Even Richard's great post-nightmare soliloquy has a mannered quality that shows the playwright is still rough in approximating spoken thoughts.

Richard III
plays at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street), closing on March 4. Tickets?

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