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Thursday, 18 August 2011

Richard III, Old Vic

Kevin Spacey’s limp body dangling upside down high above the Old Vic stage is an image that I will never forget. The success of the current production of Richard III at the Old Vic is very much thanks to Spacey and his utter devotion to the title role, the strenuous rendition of the conceited monarch.

The narrative has elements in common with Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen’s epic play that I recently saw at the National Theatre. The story of a man’s Machiavellian rise to absolute power and the struggles he incurs on the journey. Richard III is rather less humane than E&G with several bloody killings helping Richard reach the throne. Miraculously Spacey manages to bring both humour and authority to this role, playing this nasty calculating man as a modern dictator and evoking such a depth of character that he commands the stage throughout.

The play is long, and at times complex, and yet director Sam Mendes manages to deliver a slick show that is surprisingly coherent. Words are projected on stage prior to each scene to show the arrival of new characters - stylish announcements that make the production refreshingly clear. It is presented in modern dress, a decision that manages to revitalise the Shakespeare text while making it all the more exciting and eccentric. Mendes and Spacey have worked together several times before, and this production surely proves more than ever what a successful artistic partnership they make.

There are strong performances from much of the supporting cast: the women are particularly dazzling in this male dominated cast. Annabel Scholey is very convincing as the striking Lady Anne and Haydn Gwynne as the grieving Queen Elizabeth. I felt Chuk Iwuji overdid it slightly as a very keen Buckingham, Richard’s cousin. Designer Tom Piper has created an imposing, stark box stage that is later transformed to reveal a long corridor. Doors line the two walls that allow characters to sweep in and out dramatically, and also help with swift prop changes.

I particularly enjoyed the hilarious scene towards the end that uses a large screen to show Richard’s fake reluctance to accept the request to be King. He pretends to be praying and spurs his subjects on as they beg and beg him to take the crown. Spacey’s wonderful interaction even through a screen is amusing, though the characters placed to clap and shout among the audience sounded a little hesistant and lost. The whole cast take part in the finale, each person has their own drum to bang violently in rhythm... it is a spectacular group effort, in perfect unison.

This production of Richard III is mesmerising, and a rare chance to see Kevin Spacey doing what he does best, however at three and a half hours, it needs to be cut to reach a five star rating.

Richard III continues until 11 September, book online here.

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