Review: Richard III, Old Vic

“I thank God for my humility”

Something of a rarity for me in visiting the final show of a run, here the final iteration of the three year transatlantic Bridge Project this time taking in just the single show, Richard III. The reason I left it so late was mainly because I hadn’t got a huge amount of will to actually go and see it, Propeller’s anarchic and inventive interpretation being so fresh in my mind especially after revisiting it just as this production opened at the Old Vic, and though my Aunty Jean was most keen to see it, by the time I got round to it, it had predictably sold out. Sod’s law dictates that tickets for a couple of shows in the final week emerged last minute but she couldn’t make it, but I snapped up a £15 bargain in the dress circle to go and see what all the fuss was about.

The big selling point of Sam Mendes’ production was clearly Kevin Spacey in the title role and Spacey rises to the challenge to provide the grandest of performances. So much so that I was initially rather turned off by the overemphatic nature of his opening scenes, it felt akin to being hit by a sledgehammer of acting and left me wondering where on earth he was going to go from this grandstanding. Fortunately, he did calm down a bit to allow the depth of his portrayal to emerge: a malevolent spirit but not one born evil, but twisted that way by life and still able to keep a black humour about him, Spacey excelling with a sardonic rapidfire delivery.

In the face of such a dominant lead performance, a robust company is needed and thankfully, that is what we have here. For me it was the women that stood out: Annabel Scholey impressing hugely as a sensual Lady Anne, Haydn Gwynne’s statuesque Queen Elizabeth a tower of repressed grief and barely suppressed horror at the machinations around her and Maureen Anderman’s embittered Duchess of York, a vacuum of maternal love. But it was Gemma Jones’ Queen Margaret, easily dismissed as a ranting bag lady in her rags but reinterpreted here as an avenging angel whose presence haunts each of the deaths that she prophesised, a highly effective decision that gently but deftly reminds us of the wider historical (and dramatic) context of Richard III within the first tetralogy.

Not everything worked for me though. Chuk Iwuji’s slippery spin-doctor of a Buckingham was perhaps too modern, too self-possessed to convince as a King’s man and so mine the despair of his betrayal, one just got the feeling he would move onto the next client in a heartbeat, so perfectly did he capture the media-savviness of his kingmaker. Having two women play the Princes as public schoolboys felt slightly at odds with the rest of the production too, a strangely traditional choice. And I longed for a touch more innovation in Tom Piper’s spare staging, I’d’ve lost the captions and exercised more of the playful side that Mendes indulges only intermittently in locating the citizens as commuters on a tube train or the video spoofery of the rejection of the crown or the chilling juxtapositioning that accompanies the eve of Bosworth scene.

Altogether I can’t say I was disappointed by this Richard III, or even bored although one can’t help but feel some of its over-extended running time could have been trimmed with a few judicious cuts. But something was missing to make it truly great theatre and I think it was partly due to the sense that I never really forgot that I was watching Spacey give a performance. An impressive one, the scuttling around the stage is magnificently done, but nonetheless never one which entirely subsumes him into the character. This is a strong production, and was rapturously received by the audience, but I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Propeller’s utterly revelatory interpretation and in the end, those boys won it for me.

Finally, even though the previous two cycles of the Bridge Project arguably haven’t really set the world alight with their double bills, I did find it a shame that we didn’t get a similar chance to explore the company in a second show here, especially those in the more minor roles here who perhaps might have been rewarded with meatier stuff in the other piece. And where I would have perhaps liked a little more adventurous programming, the scope of the international touring schedule has to be thoroughly admired, taking in several countries in-between the two residencies here and at BAM. Indeed it was quite funny to see the cast taking their bows with extended curtain calls, speeches and a moment’s silence for the victims of the 11th September attacks as if it was the final show, when there is in fact 5 more months of this for them!

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 11th September then touring to Hong Kong, Avilés, Istanbul, Beijing, Singapore, Sydney, before ending up in New York at BAM.

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