Monday, July 4, 2011

On a Shakespeare kick

beg, buy or steal....
With my visit to Stratford-upon-Avon and that wonderful RSC production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in my mind, I returned to London to seek out more Shakespeare. As luck would have it, I had prudently pre-booked a ticket to one of the hottest shows in town at the moment, Kevin Spacey in ‘Richard III” at The Old Vic. 

My little helper
For someone who has forgotten most of their Shakespeare (except ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and chunks of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’) I recognised that this one would be more of a challenge - the history plays can get so complicated. But no worries! In one of the Stratford bookshops I had purchased a helpful volume entitled “Essential Shakespeare Handbook” and in it I found a summary of the plot, sorting out the Tudors from the Plantagenets, Buckingham from the Hastings, and who is a widow of whom. Understanding the the complicated family trees is not made any easier by so many people having the same christian Lady Margaret says to the other two ‘weeping widows’: 
“I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;/I had a harry, till a Richard killed him:/ Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;/Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him...”

With the help of this useful background reading, and a very clear production (Sam Mendes directing, Stephen Lee Andersen set design) I was able to follow just about al of the plot twists and turns, and appreciate the splendid characterisations by the actors. Spacey (now Artistic Director of The Old Vic) was (in my humble opinion) quite brilliant at Richard. There are - obviously - quite a few challenges with this dark character. He does quite evil things (those princes in the Tower!), yet there is a dark psychological side to do with his crippleness and self-loathing. Spacey, playing with one leg twisted round in a caliper and a hunch in his back, even made Richard believable in seducing Lady Anne as she mourns he husband and father-in-law, whom he has just had killed. As Shakespeare himself puts it, “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?/Was ever woman in this humour won?” Yep - believably done, believe it or not. (Lady Anne is played by Annabel Scholey).

Richard "wooing" Lady Anne.

The production is part of something called The Bridge Project, which meant that (in a reversal of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, where English actors assumed American accents), many of the actors were American. Although they didn’t bother impersonating English accents. The staging was somewhere, sometime with a contemporary feel and more than a nod to current  cruel political dictators (the program has pictures of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Kim Il-Jong). The point of The Bridge Project is trans-Atlantic co-productions, and they take the shows on tour. This one is off to the European continent once it’s finished it’s London run.

Spacey's Richard III
Of the roles other than the marvellous and dominating lead, the women were strongest. The haunting Lady Margaret (Gemma Jones), going on and on about all her relatives that Richard had killed, was saved from tediousness by a very touching delivery. I found her an absorbing character. The imperious Queen Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) - the mother of the Tower princes and various other relatives despatched by Richard - was particularly good int he scene where he tries to convince her that he can marry her daughter (he has, by this time, despatched the sad Lady Anne).

I thought a couple of the pivotal male roles were a bit weak, including the Duke of Buckingham (who was an African-American in a brown lounge suit, American-accented). He is a toadying sycophant who turns traitor, a strong role that didn’t really resonate. Although there is a marvellous scene where Richard is relayed on film, Buckingham is at a microphone, and "the media" is clearly being used to sell Richard's "spin" to the citizenry - clever, very clever. Henry of Richmond - who defeated Richard on Bosworth field and became Henry VII - wore a spiffing red coat but was wooden. There’s a scene where the ghosts of those Richard has killed line up and accuse him (and praise Henry) which was well done, with them all ranged along a long table. And the battlefield climax also came off highly dramatically: “A Horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Spacey & Mendes

An interesting bit of background I came across: Shakespeare was writing at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, and without heirs. The Tudor line established by Henry VII was thus under threat, and from a public relations point of view the Tudors were keen to blacken the name of Richard III (if it needed any more blackening) to discourage any Lancastrian pretenders. Since the Queen’s forebear had seized the crown by force of arms, his reputation needed some spiffing up too. As my “Essential Shakespeare Handbook” puts it:

"Shakespeare went beyond Tudor propaganda by presenting a Richard who is as seductive and intelligent as he is violent and evil. In the process he created one of the finest villains of the English theatre....To this day it is the actor’s performance which determines whether the play is a terrifying melodrama or a black comedy....”

Kevin Spacey’s interpretation has elements of both, but is in the end a modern psychological interpretation. His Richard III is not without some black humour, and certainly with a great deal of humanity.
The Guardian review
BBC report
The Daily Mail  says Spacey's Richard suffers from "a surfeit of sarcasm and campness" Oooo!
"Now is the winter of our discontent/
Made glorious summer by this sun of York..."
Ah yes, just a bit of sarcasm.

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