I had a date with Kevin Spacey on Saturday. Yes, I did, one I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. There we were, Kevin and I, an intimate evening for two; or it might have been but for several hundred others!
Off I went to the Old Vic Theatre, tickets purchased well in advance, where he is currently performing the lead in a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Directed by Sam Mendes, the play is being staged as part of the Bridge Project, a touring collaboration between the Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Spacey himself has been the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of London’s oldest theatres, for almost ten years now, and what a marvellous job he has done, a hands-on approach in the best tradition of the actor manager.
There he was, strutting and fretting several hours upon the stage, a dark and moody depiction of one of England’s darkest and moodiest kings. This is not the first time I have seen him as a Richard. When I was in my late teens he starred in Richard II, a production with Trevor Nunn, a wholly compelling performance.
His new Richard, if anything, is even better, even more skilful. As he limped around the stage, his twisted leg supported by callipers, I could not help but think of The Usual Suspects, the film noir where he played Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, the con artist who limps as a result of supposed cerebral palsy. The leg equalled Kint but the performance equalled Keyser Söze, the malevolent mastermind who haunts the movie, the mastermind who turns out to be Verbal himself, another trick of the devil!
Spacey is devilishly good as Shakespeare’s royal devil, the brooding prince, dark and sinister, full of resentment, an outsider whose mind is as distorted as his body. The winter of our discontent speech, the monologue with which the play opens, is superbly done, setting the whole tone for what is to follow. There is Richard watching news footage of his brother Edward ascending the throne, following the triumph of the Yorkist party in the Wars of the Roses. Even before he has said a word one knows exactly what his mood is, as he reaches in anger for the remote to kill the whole spectacle.
Driven by ambition and self-loathing, he uses every skill at his command as he makes his way bit by bit, body by body, to the pinnacle of ambition. We don’t just see this; we are part of it, the audience as silent confidants to Richard’s plotting asides. It isn’t just the words; its Spacey’s facial gestures that make the experience all the more intimate, those ingratiating smiles, those eyebrows raised at just the right moment! There is charm alright, a devilish charm.
Mendes has given a political twist to the play. It’s not, of course, the first time this has been done. The 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, has a 1930s fascist-style setting. The new reference is much more up-to-date, a winter of discontent as an Arab spring. Perhaps Gaddafi sits in Tripoli as Richard sits in Westminster, broodingly triumphant at one moment, beset by uncertainty at the next.
For me in the whole of Shakespeare’s history cycle the only figure that comes close to Richard is Henry V, but in so many ways the former is much more compelling than the latter, as malevolence is more compelling than virtue. Richard, of course, was the monster of Tudor propaganda, and Shakespeare plays to the gallery of preconceptions.
But it’s the psychological depths of the play that are so marvelous, a study as much in vulnerability as wickedness, aspects that Spacey brings out with considerable ease. Who could not feel a slight spark of sympathy, even in the teeth of so much crime, as he sits on the eve of the battle of Bosworth, his final date with destiny and death, faced with the ghosts of his victims, crying out;
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they? since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself
There are other notable performances: I liked Chuk Iwuji as Buckingham, Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne, but all stand in the shadow of Spacey, a great and memorable Richard.