The Old Vic, London
6th August 2011
Directed by Sam Mendes
Mark Bennett – music
Tom Piper – set design
Kevin Spacey as Richard III
Kevin Spacey – Richard III
Annabel Scholey- Lady Anne
Maureen Anderman- Duchess of York
Haydn Gwynne – Queen Elizabeth
Gemma Jones – Queen Margaret
Chandler Williams -George, Duke of Clarence
Chuk Iwuji – Duke of Buckingham
Jack Ellis – Lord Hastings
Isaiah Johnson – Lord Rivers / Scrivener
Howard W. Overshown – Brackenbury / Lord Mayor of London
Stephen Lee Anderson – Sir Richard Ratcliffe
Simon Lee Phillips – Sir James Tyrell / Duke of Norolk
Jeremy Bobb – 2nd murderer / Sir William Catesby
Andrew Long- King Edward IV / Bishop of Ely
Gary Powell – 1st murderer / Sir Francis Lovel
Gavin Stenhouse- Marquis of Dorset
Nathan Darrow- Lord Grey / Henry Earl of Richmond
Michel Rudko – Lord Stanley
Katherine Manners – Young Richard Duke of YorK
Hannah Stockely- Young Edward Prince of Wales
A personal note. My own theatre bug started by performing in a student Richard III at Bournemouth College when I was eighteen. I only took the part of Lord Rivers because my girlfriend was in it, and I realized watching the Old Vic production that hours of listening to Lady Anne’s lines rehearsed had stuck them in my head. In contrast, not a word of Lord Rivers rang bells, even though my battered Signet Classics copy has the speeches underlined. Comments from the women in the cast that I had a particularly “well-turned leg” in tights went to my head. Anyway, we did the battle in full armour, and one guy got badly hurt … but that’s another story.
An early review complained that the whole of this production was centred on Kevin Spacey and that the temperature dipped whenever he left the stage. Hmph. The play is called Richard III. It’s about a monomaniacal dictator called Richard III. It would figure that Richard III is central to the production, and the role is so much the lion’s share of the play that the great actor-managers from Garrick to Irving to Olivier had it as a centrepiece of their careers.
Kevin Spacey so clearly revelled in the role and relished the role and put total commitment into the role. That communicated right across into the audience which is why he got as big a standing ovation as I’ve seen in the end. My hands are still sore from clapping. It’s an extraordinary performance. I’ve never been a great Olivier fan, so to me this eclipsed that most famous performance … though of course you can’t really compare live charisma with a film. Who knows what it was like to see Olivier in the first stage production? Whatever, Spacey was magnificent. Threatening, funny, dissembling. Limping around in the leg brace for hours a day is going to cost him a fortune in chiropractors’ bills.
One of the issues with the play itself is that Shakespeare was writing about a guy who was defeated by Queen Elizabeth I’s grandad, the Earl of Richmond (aka Henry VII), who took his place. As a result, Shakespeare had to be careful to show Richmond as blandly heroic. He also created the hunchbacked Richard, for which there is no evidence, just a single comment that the real Richard had a withered hand. There were also comments on his expertise in jousting and swordplay, and that he killed several at Bosworth before he was killed himself. He can’t have been that badly disabled. There’s even a Richard III Society dedicated to pulling the “real” Richard III from under the weight of Shakespeare’s portrayal. The Black Adder TV series did this with Peter Cook portraying him as a kindly soul. Whether the historical Richard killed as many people as Shakespeare accused the fictional Richard of, or just half of them, is academic. He was a Plantagenet. They were mainly nasty pieces of work with a violent bent and were all related to each other in more than one way. Richard was also aged thirty at the start of the action, though nearly every actor who’s played him was in their 40s or 50s.
The opening scene had Richard of Gloucester (as he still was), slightly sozzled in a party hat, confiding directly to the audience, inveigling us into his confidence, just as he proceeded to do with Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey). Having killed her father and husband, he sets himself the challenge of wooing her. If he can do that, he can do anything. He tries to worm his way into her affections in a very physical scene. The historical Lady Anne grew up in a remote castle with the historical Richard, both dumped by their warring fathers. Marriages were political anyway. It’s not a total shock that she’s later forced to marry Richard. Afterwards, we discussed how much the real Anne would have been disgusted or just accepting of the situation. Whatever, the scene was superb, and Lady Anne just “looked right.”
Richard and Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey)
I wondered about those famous opening lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
Most of the audience will at some time have had the triple wordplay explained to them. Edward IV’s emblem was a sun, and Richard is a son of the House of York, as is his brother, King Edward IV. Whether the groundlings at the Globe had that detailed knowledge of the heraldry of a century earlier is questionable, though we know nothing about costume. Maybe he wore a tabard with the emblem, or spoke in front of a decorative shield. More prosaically, maybe enough Edward IV coins were still in circulation. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare 101 nowadays. Like all the best-known lines, you judge the performance minutely. Spacey gestured upwards on ‘sun’. I’ve known a few obsessive punners in my time, and they all delighted in pointing the pun to display their cleverness. This is what Spacey is doing. On that, the obsessive punners were devious people. To me the question is ‘to which son of York’ is he referring? That has to be a twinkle in the eye.
Edward IV coins: sun in centre of tails side.
On casting, this is a play with four politically powerful women. We have Lady Anne; Queen Elizabeth (Hadwyn Gwynne), the wife of Edward IV and mother of the princes in the Tower, and Richard’s sister-in-law; Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones), the wife of Henry VI; and the Duchess of York (Maureen Anderman), the mother of the three brothers … Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence and Richard. The casting was terrific. All four excelled, but the casting also gave us four women of strikingly different appearance. This is an often neglected area in the theatre. It helps locate the audience. This was aided by large projected scene titles … ‘Now”, “Clarence”, “Elizabeth,” “Margaret” and so on. Given the political confusion in all of the Wars of the Roses plays, this was a positive, even if I felt it also segmented the action, and perhaps interrupted flow. The only caveat I have about the women is the old coat and straggly hair on Margaret. Afterwards I confessed that her soothsaying role had suddenly echoed Senna The Soothsayer in Up Pompeii for me … “Oh, woe! Oh, woe! Oh, thrice times woe!” and I’d smiled to myself, half expecting Frankie Howard as Lurcio to say, “Oh, shut up, you silly old hag!” My companion had had the image of Spike Milligan. The Sunday Times review had seen Greenham Common woman 1983. The soothsaying old woman is a stock character, so it’s hard to know how not to have that aspect, but the ‘bag lady’ look had jarred with all of us and detracted from the psychological weight of a fine performance.
There are some defining scenes in the play. When Richard is being persuaded to accept the crown, Buckingham does the speech into a microphone at a podium, and a video screen shows Richard at prayer with two monks. We know these are his guards dressed up. We see Richard in tight close up pretending to be surprised at the suggestion, and being self-deprecating. Spacey is hilarious in this, and it couldn’t be done in any other way that would allow the subtlety and fine facial movements of his response to show. (We wondered whether it were a live video feed or film). Also the large cast had been placed around the back of the theatre and did such convincing crowd responses that you wanted to join in. Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji) was a powerful performance, and it’s a role Spacey once did himself. The name caused some comment, because the stress on the final syllable of BuckingHAM is Spacey’s only detectable American pronunciation. Early reviews mentioned it, and he’s sticking with it. The name in its British version, Buckingh’m, was a gift to rude limerick writers, rhyming so well with ‘them.’As several of the cast have slight American accents, it doesn’t stand out. There’s a hoary argument that internal rhymes suggest that Shakespeare’s own pronunciation was closer to current American than current British.
The coronation, to massed drumming from the cast, closes the first half of the production, in a ‘freeze frame’ moment. As in Macbeth at the RSC, the second half rewinds a few seconds on the same scene. The moment when Spacey trips and falls headlong is physical acting of the highest order.
The battle sequence avoids a full on massed clashing swords scene, except for the final fight between Richard and Richmond. It’s well-taken, and as throughout the play, drums are a powerful addition. By now, Richard’s supporters have 1930s Fascist uniforms. We end with Richard’s body hoisted upside down on a cable, suspended in the air, like Mussolini on a meat hook. After putting that much energy into his performance, how Spacey managed to have all the blood rushing to his head and act dead is beyond me. A five star performance in a five star production.
The programme notes
The Wars of the Roses plays are not my favourite area of Shakespeare. The convoluted politics are the problem, but Richard III is the best of the bunch. On that, I thought the Old Vic’s programme notes poor in comparison to the RSC. We had a short but interesting Q&A with Mendes and Spacey … I’d have quadrupled that in length. I like to read the production history of the play and that was informative. We had a long essay on the Arab spring with photos of Gaddafi and Mubarek. I thought that a waste of space, as well as a gamble. Not a lot has changed since it opened in June, but events might well have rendered the essay wrong. Spacey had watched film of dictators. We got a little bit of Hitler, a little bit of Mussolini, we got Gaddafi’s elaborate uniform and sunglasses. We didn’t need the parallels to be drawn explicitly. Every decade has dictators. Macbeth at the RSC also mentioned the Arab Spring, but that was relevant as we see a tyrant overthrown. In Richard III, it’s basically a change of senior management, that’s all. Henry VII was a bit of a bastard too. We got pages of dull lists. A family tree and detailed notes on who was who in the story should have replaced some of the stuff no one ever reads. I guess you’re supposed to know this already, but there are so many characters named after English counties that it’s hard to know your Buckingham from your Warwick and your Dorset. The fact that Buckingham’s real name was Stafford, Stanley was Earl of Derby and that half the cast are part of the Grey family doesn’t help.
The Old Vic
The Old Vic is the theatre where I first saw a professional Shakespeare production, The Merchant of Venice. Every London theatre has ludicrously inadequate women’s loos. The queue at the Old Vic, jumbled up with the way into the men’s is an appalling example. Two women said, ‘I can’t see what they can do about it.’ Well, I can. Take out half the back section of the bar seating area. Convert it into more loos. revenue won’t be lost. So many people are queueing for the loos that they haven’t any time to buy from the bar in the first place.
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