New ground was broken at the Old Vic last night, when Kevin Spacey took his first major Shakespearean role on British soil, playing usurped king, Richard II, in Trevor Nunn’s production. In doing so, the current Artistic Director of the Waterloo venue becomes the twelfth name in an impressive list of actors, including John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ronald Pickup, to play Richard at the Old Vic. Matthew Amer attended the first night…
It is clear from the start that Kevin Spacey’s Richard is a king who believes in himself, his right to govern and that he has been chosen by God to take this position of responsibility. The production opens with Richard’s regal robes of office stood, starkly and clinically, centre stage in a glass wardrobe, the crown’s jewels glittering as stars in the stage lights. As Spacey’s Richard strides ritualistically to the front of the stage before being adorned with his opulent apparel, there is not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that he can only ever be right. This self-belief will not last long.
A disagreement amongst his lords leads Richard to banish his cousin Bolingbroke (played by Ben Miles). This decision, when Richard then takes Bolingbroke’s inheritance on the death of his father, leads to an invading army, a lack of support for the king and the realisation that Richard is himself, only human. When Richard, following his surrender of the throne to Bolingbroke, desperately speaks the words “I have no name”, it is plain that he has no idea of who he is without his God-given position as ruler.
Though Trevor Nunn has previously directed 30 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, this is the director’s first stab at Richard II. In his programme notes, Nunn says of the Bard “We know that he packed his work with ‘contemporary references’”; Nunn does the same. Sharp business suits are the dress code for members of court until they hit the battlefields, when flack jackets and balaclavas prove much more appropriate for this season’s discerning warrior.
No mistake can be made that the difference between public and private expression is key to this production, as the media are ever present, filming coronations and speeches before screening them on two large screens at either side of the stage. Julian Glover’s angered John of Gaunt give his dying ‘This England’ speech only after receiving the pre-filming make-up treatment.
One particular screening – that of Bolingbroke decreeing the execution of captured enemy lords, which is set against a plain khaki backdrop, flanked by balaclava wearing henchmen and with the captured lords blindfolded – was a stark reminder of more recent conflicts.
KBen Miles’ Bolingbroke is a smooth-talking politician of a usurper, quick to gain allies as fast as the king loses them and eager to portray the correct impression in front of the press. Though he grows in confidence, his character does not change as much as that of the destroyed king. Amongst all the soul searching, Spacey’s Richard continues to shows glimpses of a very dry, and often inappropriate, sense of humour; a murmur here, a quick change of pace there, and a not un-Victoria like “We are amazed” when faced with adversity. The comic pinnacle comes from Susan Tracy’s Duchess of York who arrives to plead for the life of her treacherous son, dressed in the same son’s leather jacket and motorbike helmet, and carrying her husband’s shoe.
As the show draws to a close, with Spacey’s Richard finally able to find a little peace and contentment while imprisoned, the king doubles his evening’s tally for being stabbed in the back. The first comes from being deposed by his very kin, the second is much more physical and blood stained.
Richard II will run at the Old Vic until 26 November.