01 July 2011

Richard III - The Old Vic, Friday 24th June 2011

Richard, the Yorkist Duke of Gloucester, has not stopped plotting since the defeat of Henry VI. He conspires to play his brothers, Edward (now King Edward IV) and George, Duke of Clarence, against each other in an attempt to gain the crown for himself. By insinuating charges of treason against George, Richard has him arrested. He also brazenly woos Anne, widow of the murdered Prince of Wales, in the midst of her husband's funeral procession. In the course of events, Edward IV, who is deathly ill at the beginning of the play, dies; Richard has already arranged for George to be murdered while imprisoned, and so it stands that Richard will serve as regent while Edward's son (also named Edward) can come of age.
In order to "protect" the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Richard has them stay in the Tower of London. He then moves against Edward's loyalist lords; Vaughan, Rivers, Hastings, and Grey are first imprisoned, then executed. Then, with the aid of Buckingham, Richard declares that Edward IV's offspring are technically illegitimate. In an arranged public display, Buckingham offers the throne of England to Richard, who is presumably reluctant to accept. By this time, Richard has alienated even his own mother, who curses him as a bloody tyrant.
By now, Richard needs to bolster his claims to the crown; the young princes locked away in the Tower of London must be disposed of. Buckingham, until now Richard's staunchest ally, balks at this deed. Richard gets a murderer to do the deed, but turns on Buckingham for his insubordination. Now Richard—conveniently a widower after the suspicious demise of Anne—makes a ploy to marry the late King Edward's daughter, his niece. Elizabeth, Edward's widow, makes Richard believe that she agrees to the match; however, Elizabeth has arranged for a match with the Earl of Richmond.
Richmond, at this point in the action, is bringing over an army from France to war against Richard. Buckingham, finding himself out of favor with the king, gives his allegiance to Richmond. However, Buckingham is captured when his army is thrown into disarray by floods, and Richard has him executed immediately. Richmond, who has undergone his own troubles crossing the English Channel, finally lands his army and marches for London. The armies of Richard and Richmond encamp near Bosworth Field; the night before the battle, Richard is visited by the sundry ghosts of the people he has slain, all of whom foretell his doom.
At Bosworth, Richard is unhorsed in the combat. Richmond finds him, and the two of them clash with swords. Richmond prevails and slays Richard, to be crowned as King Henry VII there on the field of battle. This is the founding of the Tudor line of kings and the end of the War of the Roses.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester - Kevin Spacey
George, Duke of Clarence - Chandler Williams
Hastings - Jack Ellis
Anne - Annabel Scholey
Elizabeth - Hadyn Gwynne
Buckingham - Chuk Ijuwi
Margarget - Gemma Jones

Creative Team:
Director - Sam Mendes
Set - Tom Piper
Costumes - Catherine Zuber
Lighting- Paul Pyant

Jesus Mary Mother of God, does the world need another black and white, modern dress production of Shakespeare? No, my friends, it does not. Does it need Kevin Spacey to dress up as Colonel Gadaffi to hammer home the point that Richard III was a crazed tyrant and that crazed tyrants are still with us? Does it need an Yank to play the (ultimately) victorious Henry VII to remind us of the American habit of riding in with the cavalry as each conflict draws to a close to “save the world from itself” and restore order? Are the modern references hammered home with that little bit too much force? Yes, my friends, they are. Did I enjoy this? No, my friends, I did not. In fact, I booed very loudly at the end, the first time I’ve ever done so and god did it feel good.

This is the final offering by Spacey’s Bridge Project, a series of UK/US collaborations which have ultimately and across the board failed to deliver the goods on any kind of level, proving nothing other than that Americans don’t understand Shakespeare’s speech patterns. This particular play also highlights the fact that big-screen actors can rarely adapt downwards to appearing on stage – its only at the end of the tediously long first half (two and a quarter hours, take a bucket to put under your seat) when the action puts Spacey in front of an offstage camera that he comes alive as an actor. It also highlights the fact that theatres really, really need to go back to putting a synopsis in their programmes – not once throughout the entire evening did I fully understand who was married to who, what the line of succession was or why the Bishop of Ely was eating strawberries (placing the action firmly in June) on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field (which took place in late August).

You really have to be a serious history buff to get the best out of this play – unfortunately, most of the audience seemed to be there merely because they were Kevin Spacey buffs; a fact that led to at least two people walking out before the interval (‘Psst” “What?” “Is it me or is this a really boring play?” “Yeah, really boring” “You wanna go?” “We can’t, I paid sixty quid for these tickets ‘cos you like Kevin Spacey films”. “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was gonna be like all this shoutin’ and stampin’ about and wotnot. C’mon, lets go, and we’ll get a KFC on the way home”. “Alright then”) and at least 6 more failing to return after the interval (presumably their bladders had been battered into complete submission and they couldn’t face any more). There were the requisite shouts of “whoooooo!” by the Sharon’s and Tracey’s when Spacey made his first entrance and plenty of ovating at the end (presumably by people relieved that the whole thing was over). But Mendes’ sparse direction really failed to catch fire for me. Add to that some really dreadful acting by Chuk Iwuji as the Duke of Buckingham (perhaps he should be called Chuk Himoffstage) in a role which should be that of eminence grise but was more like one of the Wicked Queen’s henchmen in Snow White and a visually dreary production made me go off this big-time. Of course, its critic-proof – practically sold out for the remainder of the run so neither this review nor any other is going to stop the tills at the Old Vic ringing loudly.

The only cast members to really come alive on stage were exclusively female – Haydn Gwynne took a while to warm up into the role of Elizabeth but fired on all cylinders once she got going, and Gemma Jones walked away with the very few scenes she was in as a dreadlocked voodoo Queen Margaret. This character is only onstage for a tiny proportion of the running time, but Jones managed to show everyone else around her up completely by giving her Margaret true Shakespearean stature. Of course, she is a classical trained actress while the majority of the younger cast have merely driven the van for a Legs Akimbo Summer Tour (most of them seem to have been cast for their skills in drumming rather than for any actual talent in acting) and by golly it showed in her last scene when every word was audible, every consonant properly place, every line thoughtfully and carefully inflected. I applauded – people sitting nearby looked at me as if I was some kind of loony but then they probably wouldn’t recognise good acting if it came and sat on their face. And as for casting Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely as the Princes Richard and Edward (the “Princes in the Tower”) – well that was just daft. Two full grown women with breasts and hips, dolled up in school uniforms and affecting piping trebles – who ever came up with that daft idea? What really got my goat was the lack of blood on stage – to sit someone in a chair, stand behind them and put your hands over their eyes, then dim the stage lights to represent a gory murder – that’s just pretentious. As Agatha Christie said in her autobiography (and excuse me if I paraphrase a little here because I can’t locate my copy at the moment to get the exact quote ) “The symbolism of tapping someone gently on the cheek with a tin of Birds Custard Powder is all very well, but I do prefer to see someone getting a proper custard pie in the face sometimes”.

And what of Spacey? Well, he’s OK. I found him just that bit too mannered to be truly believable. Part of the problem is the accent – for the first ten minutes, I was impressed by his perfect RP, but then it started to slip away on certain words until we were getting Standard American all the way through. By the end I had started to find his performance crashingly arrogant – I felt as if he was playing to the gallery rather than really inhabiting the role.

At the end, I actually booed – the first time I recall having done so at the theatre. It was all a bit too much of the Emperor’s New Clothes for me to be convinced I was watching a great production. The one thing I dislike about what Him Indoors calls “Communist Bowing” (i.e. when all the cast take their bows together rather than individually) is that one doesn’t get the chance to applaud (or indeed boo) particular performers. I’d have stood for Gemma Jones, cheered for Hadyn Gwynne and roundly raspberried Chuk Iwuji. Bring back individual bows, synopses in the programme, some decent scenery to look at and buckets of blood on the stage and I’ll be a happy man. Oh, and some actors who don’t drawl like John Wayne when they are playing English noblemen.

It is, of course, traditional in this household to see at least one Panto during the Christmas season. However, Him Indoors recently let slip that there are tickets booked for Richard II in very late December. Unless I can wing it otherwise, he’ll be going on his own because frankly, this Richard III was just one dreary production of Shakespeare too many for me. There have been too many of late, and I’m done with The Bard for a good long time on the back of them. Call me a philistine, but I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really want at the moment is a decent musical!

What the critics thought:





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