Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Richard III

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid...

It's always an interesting thing to see words you have read solitary, imagined a certain way in your head, performed aloud by actors. One of two things will occur: you will find fault, these actors not as good as the ones in your head, or actors will out-do your imaginary actors and you will be wowed. Sometimes the both will occur, last night for instance.

Earlier in the week, I had read Richard III, in anticipation of seeing it last night at BAM, a production directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey in the titular role. During this opening monologue, I got giddy, knew already that I was going to love the next few hours with Kevin Spacey performing this role. He hit the ground running, as you have to do given the opening monologue of the play, and performed it in a way that really added layers of flesh and depth to these lines which I had not seen in my reading of the play. That's what good acting is certainly. His Richard was cruel and funny, terrible and yet somehow charming in that terribleness, always seeming to be on the verge of veering into camp but straddling that line so well. It was a magical performance on his part. Despite his villainy, probably because of it actually, I was so enthralled with this character. It's a weird play in that despite Richard's cruelty and murderousness, we, as an audience, are drawn to him, his way with language making his power grabs sound reasonable. Despite their very good reasons to hate him, he succeeds to a great degree in being able to win over both Anne and Elizabeth, the both of whom he is responsible for their widowhood. And to a great degree in this production, he wins over this audience. It's actually quite an amazing thing, how such a loathsome man, through the force of his on-stage personality, becomes someone that the audience, despite knowing better, loves to watch and is so entertained by. These numerous murders that occur throughout the play lack pathos. In a couple instances, they are ghoulishly funny. There is a complicity on the audience's part with this play, much like the royal court at the time, to tolerate these things, smirk at them.

Spacey is a barreling force of energy, lumbering around on his braced leg, his foot bent inward, supporting himself on a cane, hunched over, and scurrying across the stage arachnid-like - a staggering amount of physical energy on Spacey's part. It is an amazing performance to watch. The problem though is that despite it almost being a one-man show, it is not one, and the rest of the cast isn't always able to engage this storm of a performance. Chuck Iwuji, who plays Buckingham, does an amazing job as well, and so does Haydn Gwynne, who plays Elizabeth. A lot of the cast though never really seem to be able to engage with Spacey's performance. Some of the actors seem like they belong in an entirely different staging of Richard III and I am sure some of them probably wish that they were.

I was comparing them to the actors that had played these roles in my mind when I read the play a few days earlier. With Shakeseare though, often I am able to get more out of the plays reading them than seeing them performed. Because the language requires a little more time for me to appreciate it, to realize how great and clever some of the lines are, I miss out on some of the things when the lines are delivered rapid fire and I am not able to make out everything that's being said, let alone what some of the words and expressions mean.

The set was pretty boring, though in a few scenes it did work very effectively, beautiful tableaus presented by the blocking at times. Richard marching down the long stage toward the audience, a line of drummers behind him, something parade-like, carnivalesque, and absurd - power on the march, power done up in military costumes and with a soundtrack of drums. It is stopped momentarily by his mother, the Duchess of York, only momentarily though. They have a fierce exchange, the drums quieting slightly though still beating, the Duchess cursing her son to a bloody death.

My mind's staging didn't have Kevin Spacey, these occasional drums, or Iwuji's playing Buckingham like a revivalist preacher in one scene. These are aspects to the play that will now always attend it when I reread it, aspects that have broadened the meaning of this play for me. Annette Bening is in this mash-up as well, her Elizabeth from the 1995 film version amazing. Robert Downey Jr. might be in there as well. But all of these are in the service of these lines, these really well-written lines.

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