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A CurtainUp Review
Richard III

The Bridge Project's Richard III at BAM

By Elyse Sommer

". . .Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain. "
— Richard establishing his persona in his opening "This is the winter of our discontent"monologue.
Kevin Spacey as Richard III
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
During the past week I've seen two actors portraying cripples navigating the stage on canes, each one's leg so painfully twisted that you fear the actor is going to throw something out of joint before the show they're in ends its run. But the resemblance between those two fictional cripples ends with the twisted foot and cane. Porgy, the beggar in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, is emotionally healthy and, in fact, an almost saintly character. Richard III is of course, one of Shakespeare's most malevolent villains, crippled in spirit as well as body. And Kevin Spacey, outdoes the infamy of the "bottled spider" to spectacular excess, so much so that watching this final production of the Bridge Project is something of a master class in how to get away with over-the-top acting.

Given that Richard III is one of the Bard's most frequently produced "hits," I've seen my share of Rchards. And yet each production, whether with a superstar like Kevin Spacey or a less well-known actor, this play about the evil seeded by unbridled ambition for power, has been a riveting experience. If I was forced to play the "my favorite Richard" game, I suppose Ian McKellen would win. But make that the most outrageous and funny, Kevin Spacey would take top honors. Not that, despite the high body count, black humor hasn't always figured importantly in this tale of the Duke of Gloucester's ascent to the throne and ultimate "a horse, my kingdom for a horse" Humpty-Dumpty downfall. But Spacey has tapped into that humor with truly extraordinarily devilish intensity.

Sam Mendes's production effectively creates a modern dictatorship reminiscent of recently deposed tyrants in Iraq, Egypt and Libya. The projected titles that precede each scene work well to focus on the pivotal character in each. Some of the most memorable visual images include the public seen as straphangers reading all about what's happening with the royals; also the murder of characters depicted with a gentle brushing of hands over two victims' eyes, only to have the bloody head brought in a box to Richard.

The ensemble is for the most part excellent, in some instances outstanding. But this is Spacey's show. He dominates the Bridge production, his swan song as the Old Vic's actor-manager, from the opening "winter of our discontent" to the gasp-inducing finale about which I'll only say that it adds yet another reason to hope that Spacey has a physical therapist at the ready to help deal with the demands this performance makes on his body.

Of the many venues for which this production has had to adapt itself I can't think of a more ideal one than BAM's Harvey Theater. The huge stage beautifully accommodates the wall of 18 doors through which the characters enter and exit. That wall of doors opens up in the second act into a stunning expanse for Richard's coronation and final battle scenes. The percussionists performing Mark Bennet's mood enhancing score, are well positioned in the boxes at each side of the stage.

Since our London critic Lizzie Loveridge ably and fully covered the details of the production and the actors, and I agree with her assessment of the performances (though her quibbles about the adult young women playing the doomed young royals didn't bother me), I'll end my comments by asking you to click the following link to read her review in London.

Production Credits
Richard the III by William Shakespeare
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Richard, Duke of Gloucester), Chandler Williams (George, Duke of Clarence), Howard W. Overshown (Brackenbury/Lord Mayor of London), Jack Ellis (William, Lord Hastings), Annabel Scholey (Lady Anne), Haydn Gwynne (Queen Elizabeth), Isaiah Johnson (Lord Rivers/Scrivner), Nathan Darrow (Lord Grey/Henry, Earl of Richmond), Gavin Stenhouse (Marquess of Dorset), Chuk Iwuji (Duke of Buckingham), Michael Rudko (Lord Stanley), Gemma Jones (Queen Margaret), Gary Powell (First Murderer/Sir Francis Lovel), Jeremy Bobb (Second Murderer/Sir William Catesby), Andrew Long (King Edward IV/Bishop of Ely), Maureen Anderman (Duchess of York), Katherine Manners (Young Richard), Hannah Stokely (Young Edward), Stephen Lee Anderson (Sir Richard Ratcliff) and Simon Lee Phillips (Sir James Tyrrel/Duke of Norfolk).
Set Design: Tom Piper
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Sound: Gareth Fry
Projection: Jon Driscoll
Music: Mark Bennett
Music coordination and direction: Curtis Moore
Fight director: Terry King
A Bridge Project production, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic and Neal Street. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100,
Closing March 3, 2012 From January 9, 2012 (six performances) Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturady, Sunday at 7:30 PM; Thursday at 7:00 PM. From January 16 (7 performances weekly) Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 PM, Sat at 2 & 7:30 PM and Sunday at 3PM
>Running time: Three hours and 15 minutes including intermission
Review by Elyse Sommer based on January 21st press matinee Lizzie Loveridge London Review

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Lizzie Loveridge's Review in London

A murderous villain, and so still thou art. — Queen Margaret
It is a role made for Kevin Spacey who surely would surely have been made a knight of the theatre if foreign nationals were eligible for the award of the royal "sword on shoulder" honour. Here he plays the least well behaved of Elizabeth II's famous ancestors in a version of history spun by William Shakespeare for his monarch, the first Queen Elizabeth, the grand daughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Why is Spacey so brilliant as the "bottled spider" usurper? Because Richard III can be full of black humour, of irony and this is a master class in ironic acting. Crook backed Dick is a mass murderer whose worst excesses of treachery we are here to enjoy. I had a brilliant view from Row K in the Old Vic stalls but some of the action in this modern production is live streamed onto a giant screen for all to enjoy Spacey's facial range of audience titillation. Remember this is the theatre where Lawrence Olivier first played Richard III in 1944.

The opening scene with the famous "Winter of discontent" speech is played with the hunched figure of Richard of Gloucester centre on a bare stage, his deformed profile in strong shadow relief on the far wall and on his head a paper party crown. Above him a screen shows Edward IV (Andrew Long) Richard's brother the recently crowned king. This opening line features the son /sun pun with winter/summer and sets the comic tone.

Spacey's Richard seethes bitterness and malice. His progress across the stage with his left leg in splint, his body terribly twisted, is riveting. He falls over at his coronation in a rare poignant moment. Spacey gives a naturalness to many of Shakespeare's speeches as if the words are his rather than those of the Bard. You could understand not a word of English and still enjoy Kevin Spacey's performance as Richard III.

It is Edward's queen and later widow Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) who takes the female acting honours in a production otherwise rather unbalanced with such a tour de force from Kevin Spacey. Haydn Gwynne described as the "poor painted queen" has remarkable eyebrows and a range of expression to match Spacey's own, all without the benefit of the video close up. Gemma Jones lurks as the aged and sinister Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's widow and ousted queen, cursing everybody and marking each death off on the multiple doors which line the stage with a giant X.

The Duke of Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji) is played as an apologist, praise singer or PR agent for Richard in this modern dress production until of course he defects to the other side. I liked the Duke of Clarence (Chandler Williams) in evening dress with a white silk scarf but his appearance in the Tower shows him filthy and badly treated before the executioners arrive. Annabel Scholey's Lady Anne strayed into shouting and the sexual nature of the scene with Richard did not work. Like the others of these plays for The Bridge Project in previous years, the casting never seems ideal but on this occasion there is no excuse that they are perfect for another role in another play, as this year's programme includes but one play.

The little princes are rather ridiculous, played by adult women in clumsy wigs. What can director Sam Mendes have been thinking? We know this production has to tour to strange places, off the beaten theatre track like Belgrade and Tokyo and so presumably the recruiting of local children to play the wee boys was not an option. But thinking about it more deeply, what these unsympathetic figures do is to remove the distress and pity on hearing of the deaths of two sweet children and so it is easier not to take Richard too seriously.

Each scene in Mendes' production features a title, the words projected so that the letters cast lengthening shadows like television montage. The citizens in black coats and hats strap hang on a tube train like a painting by Magritte with clouds on the sky. The Royals pose for publicity photographs like a celebrity ridden award ceremony.

Do anything you can to secure a ticket to see Spacey's Richard III. Looking back to my review of his playing Richard II in 2005 I said,"Maybe Kevin Spacey would consider playing the next Richard in the series." Where for him to go next? Shylock?

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th July 2011 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London
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©Copyright 2012, Elyse Sommer.
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