Portrait: Kevin Spacey as Richard III, Old Vic
The following is an experiment that grew out of Lyn Gardner’s Critic’s Notebook on the absence of actors in theatre criticism. Largely it’s to do with space and contemporary style, but it is surely, at least in part, also because we have to eyeball the actors that we avoid being too nasty about them. You rarely see an ‘X can’t act’ review. The perception is that the casting process and direction are too blame for bad performances. Personally, I’m keen to see actors treated with critical respect and wanted to see whether one could review a performance singularly.
Described by critics as “mesmerising” and “compellingly watchable,” Kevin Spacey’s Richard III so motors Sam Mendes’ production that whenever he’s not onstage, you wish he’d return. For more than three hours we watch him almost exclusively. We can’t help it. He catches the light and we, dazzled magpies all, cannot avert our gaze.
Naturally, the instinct is to lavish praise on a charismatic superstar, but in actual fact, Spacey has developed an ingenious scene-stealing technique. By playing Richard as an attention junkie, a man that cannot fathom being upstaged, Spacey monopolises our attention by stealth. The moment someone else starts to speak, he turns to his supporters and undermines. He rolls his eyes and cups his ears as if to say, ‘Speak up, love.’ His good hand becomes a mocking ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing “Blah, blah, blah. Yadda, yadda, yadda.” Such active reactions overpower their triggers, making this a black hole of a performance, one that sucks our attention in, at the expense of almost anything else.
But, by god, it’s engrossing. Domineering it may be, but it hangs together perfectly, for Spacey’s is a Richard whose pride – no, whose egotism – stems from absolute disdain. The world, for him, is a computer game, in which he alone has consciousness and value. Other people are mere scenic effects or obstacles. Richard need not keep to their time. He blusters into meetings late, an empty chair waiting for him, and storms straight out again. There are no excuses or apologies. Instead, he flips the chairman a bird: “I have been long a sleeper.” Or, in other words, “Fuck you.”
It is this impulse of unwavering self-certainty, Spacey suggests, that drives men to autocracy and, in the second half, Richard becomes an all-purpose dictator. Here, he’s in a Kim Jong Il two-piece; there, a Herodian gown and crown. By Bosworth, his army look like the Galactic Empire’s and, finally, he’s strung up like Mussolini by the feet. The psychology is sound – Spacey’s Richard will surely be remembered for accepting the crown onscreen with the transparent mock-shock of an Oscar-winner; his humility more faux than fair – but it’s all rather heavy-handed, ticking off totalitarian tyrants one by one.
Even physically, he makes a human Swastika: his arms crooked into opposing right angles. The effect, though lolloping and ungainly, is camp villainy and coquettishness. His good hand over-gestures: often daintily, occasionally with a flourish that verges on jazz-hands. Presenting himself side on, he adopts the pose of a showgirl cheekily flashing a bit of calf. It’s a flirtation that lasts throughout. It is, ultimately, to us that he performs. When left alone, the false smile instantly thaws and he’ll turn our way to huff with scorn.
This is where Spacey excels as a Richard. You couldn’t wish for a more exquisite creep. His ability to chill resides in a quicksilver mind and a forked tongue. His danger is his slipperiness and ruthlessness. But it works best when threat or potential energy, when we don’t quite know what he’s capable of, because he lacks the muscle and the bombast to terrify. When he rails, even unexpectedly, there is a hollowness that betrays him. His hairdryer treatment is just a lot of hot air. Increasingly deserted, then, he looks weaker by the second and it’s hard to believe that he makes Bosworth without an internal coup.
Photograph: Alistair Muir