Reuniting with Kevin Spacey for the first time since the film American Beauty, director Sam Mendes has created a stylish, engaging, film noir production of Richard III.
This final instalment of The Bridge Project brings together another British-American ensemble of actors to be led by Spacey in the title role of Shakespeare’s historical thriller. Spacey has played villains before, indeed he has limped before – in one of his most famous films, The Usual Suspects – and here he channels all his villainous tendencies into the crippled, hunchback would-be King, a man seemingly devoid of scruples and morals who uses cunning and charm to achieve his tyrannical, murderous ends.
In fact his portrayal is verging on cartoonish. Wearing callipers on one leg and clutching a stick with a single gloved hand, he prowls around the stage like a velociraptor. He woos Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) with a smug sneer on his lips, orders the murder of relatives with a flick of his hand and, on finally achieving the throne, smiles with the grin of someone devoid of conscience. Only when he stumbles during his coronation and dreams of those he has killed does any vulnerability come through.
It is left to the other characters to show more human characteristics; Haydn Gwynne’s Queen Elizabeth ably expresses the horror we all feel at Richard’s so flippant ability to kill; Michael Rudko’s Lord Stanley shows the familial concern for his son that is alien to Richard; and Gemma Jones haunts the shadows as Queen Margaret, a woman who has lost everything and is now an ominous harbinger of doom.
Despite being one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, Mendes’s production whips along at a cracking pace. Visually striking, Tom Piper’s simple, monochrome set provides a suitable backdrop for Mendes’s filmic vision. Projections and video are effectively used, both to clarify scenes and characters, and to place the story in a contemporary world of spin and PR. A particularly effective moment sees Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji) urge the people to persuade Richard to be King as a camera hones in on Spacey’s praying face backstage, the very picture of false devotion and covert ambition.
Costumes are well devised, too. Modern dress yet somehow timeless, this is a world of sharp suits and sober gowns, where Spacey’s ostentatious military uniform stands out like a proclamation of his domination. With his tasselled shoulder pads and aviator sunglasses, the reference to Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi is obvious.
Mark Bennett’s dramatic music and the use of drumming – which the cast embraces with admirable style – help bring the play to its dramatic climax. If the production feels a little rushed in places, it is a small compromise to make to retain the energy and pace that makes this macabre thriller a rollercoaster of a ride.