In what is, rather dispiritingly, the last production of the Bridge Project’s three-season investigation of the classics directed by Sam Mendes and jointly spearheaded by the Old Vic and BAM, Richard III makes for a flashy, significant final flourish.
Featuring Kevin Spacey as the titular disfigured king, Mendes’ is a production teeming with insight into the political process and, more importantly, inhabited by a scenery-chewing monster of a lead actor, one who understands both the importance of character development and the old-fashioned notion of chewing the scenery.
If Mendes’ production occasionally strives too literally for relevance (the curtain when the audience arrives reads, rather pretentiously, “Now”), once the ball is rolling, there’s no denying that suspense is the name of the game in this tightly-paced production, which clocks in at over three hours but never flags in its relentless tempo (accented at regular intervals by Mark Bennett’s percussive score, performed by the cast and two designated musicians).
Chock-full of hammy, performative asides and rich with poetry, Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s more obvious and more blatantly entertaining plays. Following the machinations of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as he blazes his way to the crown, sacrificing all those who stand in his way, the play presents ample opportunities for its lead performer. On this front, Spacey never disappoints, hunchbacked and limping, imbuing each line with a smarmy tinge of hubris.
In supporting roles, Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret are also standouts. Amongst the rest of the cast are a number of capable performers, but, for the most part, the rest of the ensemble serves merely as a backdrop for Spacey’s broad, accomplished performance.
During scene changes, the widow Queen Margaret roves with chalk in hand, marking X’s on doors as she goes until, during the play’s final moments, they are finally flung open in the spirit of newfound peace and a return to openness. Doors surround the playing space (designed by Tom Piper), emphasizing the importance of entrances and exits, which occur at frequent intervals and with a great deal of cunning.
It’s so encouraging to see here a return to focus for Mendes, whose second Bridge Project season reveled in a sort of Pier One Imports-inspired faux naturalism and suffered from a lack of oversized personalities (Stephen Dillane’s human-sized Prospero chief amongst these disappointments).
Watching his Tempest and As You Like It, with some exceptions (Juliet Rylance in particular), was a bit like staring down a bundle of aromatic sticks. This production, by turns, courses with the kind of guileful maleficence that makes Iago, famed villain of Othello, so thoroughly watchable. Perhaps it’s not too late for Spacey to face off against the Moor onstage; only time will tell.