It’s Good to Be the King

21. October, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #99: Richard III, SHN, October 19.

Kevin Spacey and Annabel Scholey in Richard III. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

By Sam Hurwitt

Highly questionable historical accuracy aside, Richard III is one of William Shakespeare’s most delightfully sinister characters, and almost certainly his most finely crafted villain. (Sorry, Iago. No disrespect, Tamora.) The sheer joy he takes in his own deceit is infectious as he manages to seduce people with a thin veneer of pious sincerity and generosity while oozing viciousness from every pore.

That’s exactly what makes Kevin Spacey so much fun to watch in the Old Vic production of Richard III holed up at the Curran Theatre for a brief, 12-performance run courtesy of SHN, with some tickets as high as $400 and others (if available) as low as $35. Spacey’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is clearly having a ball as he plots the deaths of everyone between him and the throne of his ailing brother, King Edward IV. The artistic director of London’s Old Vic in addition to his big-screen endeavors, Spacey tackles the role with gusto, relishing every minute of his slyly insidious treachery.  When he feigns compassion it’s with an exaggerated unctuousness, and he waves away the fury of others with contemptuous mockery that sometimes borders on wackiness, even using a Groucho Marx voice at one point.

Spacey also plays up Richard’s physical deformity, with hunched posture accentuating the hump on his back and one leg severely twisted in a brace. Though he uses a cane, Richard moves furiously quickly, turning his limp into a pronounced swagger as he charges ahead.

Most of Spacey’s scenery-chewing is a treat, because it highlights exactly the things about Richard that makes him such a deliciously sinister snake in the grass. Shakespeare made us all Richard’s coconspirators, and he’s written very much with a wink to the audience, so the role leaves a lot of room for playful theatricality.

Where Spacey starts to lose me is where Richard starts to lose his self-assuredness, and possibly his mind. Richard does a whole lot of shouting in the second half, and the nuance that Spacey lingers on so lovingly earlier in the play gets lost in the roaring.

The production reunites Spacey with American Beauty director Sam Mendes, whose staging is visually striking, with a terrific set by Tom Piper of 18 matching doors making up the entire bottom section of the walls, with brick painted gray with patches of plaster above. Costumer Catherine Zuber’s stylish modern suits and gowns are largely in black and white, with the occasional deep red or other color setting it off. Some of the executions are handled as heavily stylized metaphor, with sinister Ratcliffe (a chillingly understated Stephen Lee Anderson, especially effective when he’s not talking) just passing his hand slowly over the spotlight faces of the condemned as their light goes out.

Deposed King Henry VI’s widow Queen Margaret, played by Gemma Jones, wanders in as a bag lady to curse and berate the lords who killed her family in the War of the Roses. Rather than treating her running commentary as standard Shakespearean asides of someone not yet noticed, she declaims them full-throated, remaining invisible to the others through some mystical means. When she magically appears in their midst, however, that doesn’t seem to make them take her any more seriously. Richard in particular thumbs his nose at her and razzes her with party noisemakers.

Mad Margaret is often an annoying character, and proves so here as well, the more so because seemingly every time something significant happens, she’s wandering around staring balefully at the proceedings. Margaret’s omnipresence quickly becomes tiresome, but it does have one great effect: Whenever Richard has someone killed, Margaret strolls over to one of the doors and draws an X on it, crossing off yet another person she’d cursed at the beginning of the play.

The large cast of 20 is generally quite strong, with a few obvious weak links.  As Queen Elizabeth, Edward’s wife, Haydn Gwynne is compelling in her poise and dignity and in her later grief and fury, and Andrew Long gives a passionate performance as her anguished husband, anxious to make peace among rival factions before he dies. Chuk Iwuji is a sly and charismatic Buckingham, Richard’s willing coconspirator, and Jack Ellis has a strong politician’s presence as Hastings.  Gary Powell and Jeremy Bobb have a wonderful scene as a pair of murderers having a debate about the uselessness of conscience before attacking a sleeping target.

Annabel Scholey makes an attractive Lady Anne, seduced by Richard over the body of the husband he murdered, but doesn’t bring much to the role. Chandler Williams is too crazed as Richard’s imprisoned brother Clarence to make much sense of his monologue.  With her rushed and hushed, squeaky delivery, Hannah Stokely is nearly inaudible as the young Prince of Wales. Michael Rudko’s delivery is a bit labored as Lord Stanley, who comes off like a bland country doctor, and Nathan Darrow feels callow and out of his depth as the Earl of Richmond, the young rival commander who revolts against Richard to become Henry VII.

Mendes creates some marvelously compelling stage pictures, as when Richard makes a great show of being drafted to the throne against his will on a large screen, broadcasting from an altar where he’s pretending to pray. There’s one great swordfight directed by Terry King, which is all the more striking because other battle scenes are conspicuously missing, replaced by a the stony faced cast pounding barrel drums in Mark Bennett’s propulsive score. When Richard and Richmond address their armies, it’s the same line of troops, with the two commanders taking turns pacing before them.

There’s a coldness to the staging that makes it hard to sympathize too much with the many bloodied and bereaved by Richard, but it’s lively and compelling throughout. The show’s three and a half hours don’t feel long at all, and that in itself is a good reason to hail King Richard.

Richard III plays through October 29 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco.

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