Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Richards

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Steve Vineberg, to our group.

Two versions of Richard III are playing simultaneously in London this summer: one by Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller Company in Hampstead, and at the Old Vic a sellout version directed by Sam Mendes with the departing artistic director Kevin Spacey in the title role – the latest product of the Mendes-Spacey Bridge Project, in which English and American actors share the stage. It’s not difficult to imagine Spacey as Richard, Shakespeare’s wittiest and most charismatic villain. The problem is that his performance is exactly as you imagine it; it contains no surprises. It was bold of Spacey to shift focus from a movie career to the English boards, and those of us who had grown weary of his trademark switchblade irony – especially deadly when he offered it in combination with sentimental masochism in films like Pay It Forward, K-Pax and Beyond the Sea – hoped that it would fit him up with some new ways into his characters. Indeed he’s been better in his recent pictures (particularly Shrink), and his Richard is certainly an impressive technical achievement. He handles the language deftly, easily holding his own among the skilled English actors and providing a role model for his American cohorts (none of whom, alas, comes close to emulating him). And God knows he commands the stage, as any Richard needs to: he’s often hilarious and always mesmerizing.

Richard III is perhaps the only play Shakespeare ever wrote that functions solely as a star vehicle. Richard plots to obtain the throne; once he’s got it, about halfway through the play, he plots to secure it; and he resorts directly to the most direct method – murder. With the exception of his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (whose brother and sons he kills), and the cursing, half-mad old Queen Margaret, the major supporting characters are all dupes who make the mistake of underestimating him and who pay the ultimate price for their bad judgment. (Lady Anne, whom he courts over the coffin of her father-in-law – whom he killed, as well as her husband – doesn’t exactly underestimate him, but she’s weak enough to walk into his trap with her eyes open. He marries her and then disposes of her when she no longer suits his purposes.) His male victims are merely foils for Richard, whose gleeful scheming, confided to the audience in the manner of a medieval Vice, is the play’s dramatic arc until the good Richmond gathers an army against him toward the end and Richard simply runs out of luck. Put another way, the forces of evil, as always in Shakespeare, eventually burn themselves out: the ghosts of Richard’s victims unite on the eve of battle to trouble his sleep and bless Richmond. The plot structure isn’t much different from Macbeth’s, but aside from a psychologically complex protagonist, that play has Lady Macbeth. It’s also compact, whereas Richard III drags on; Mendes’s production clocks in at three and a quarter hours, and it’s paced well. There’s not much to focus on besides Richard’s merry villainy.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III
Spacey retains your attention, but his Richard is such a transparent manipulator that his victims come across as idiots for trusting him. When his cousin and ally the Duke of Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji) exhorts the rabble to beg him to take the throne after the death of his older brother, Edward IV (Andrew Long), Richard is at prayer in the castle. Shakespeare makes a comedy out of Richard’s show of piety and his pretend reluctance to take the crown (Buckingham offers it to him repeatedly before he says yes). In this production, which has a modern setting, news cameras invade Richard’s sanctuary so he gets to play to the camera rather than to a live crowd, and Spacey’s impression of fake Christian humility is quite funny. But it’s also preposterously obvious, like something out of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. This may not be a role that calls for much subtlety, but Spacey’s choices are consistently more crowd-pleasing than interesting. His default position is to shout – in the “strawberries” scene where he finds an excuse to condemn Hastings (Jack Ellis), the Lord Chamberlain, to death, for instance, or when Buckingham, who falls out of favor with him as soon as Richard becomes king, reminds him of his promises of lands and a higher title for helping him to the throne. This is an unfair comparison, no doubt, but no one who has seen Laurence Olivier in the 1955 movie is likely to have forgotten the intertwined layers of playful and sinister irony in his reading of Richard’s reply to Buckingham, “I am not in the giving vein today”; you don’t expect Spacey (or anyone) to equal Olivier, but since he set the bar so high you might expect Spacey to do more than just yell the line. By the second half that’s almost all he does – in the scene where Elizabeth (Hadyn Gwynne, in a fine performance), whose daughter Richard wants to replace Anne as his queen, outwits him, his one-note exasperation flattens out the rhetorical range of Richard’s strategic wordplay. Spacey’s performance doesn’t have enough ideas in it to sustain it for the play’s length: after intermission only the sheer power of his personality holds the play together.

Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey
Mendes’s direction suffers from the same problem – it’s skillful in a certain way, it’s undeniably entertaining, the narrative is clear (a virtue that shouldn’t be undervalued in a production of a play with so many interchangeable characters), but it doesn’t have a clear concept. Partly it’s a portrait of Richard as a Stalin-like dictator; partly it chronicles the destruction of Queen Margaret’s enemies, the targets of her curses – the ones who colluded in the deaths of her men and robbed her of her throne – as Richard conveniently kills them off and then joins them at the end. (Gemma Jones is effective in the role of Margaret.) But the Stalin idea doesn’t take hold until halfway through the show, and if Mendes wants us to see the plot as a fulfillment of Margaret’s curse, then he needs to set it up that way at the beginning. The production is full of ideas that seem clever (like the video feed in the castle) or at least are striking, but they’re only ornamentation, and often they don’t make sense in the context of the play Shakespeare wrote. Richard’s wooing of Anne is so aggressive that it leaves her panting, which makes her look like either the most fickle woman who ever lived or a moral idiot. Richard’s other brother George, the Duke of Clarence (Chandler Williams), whom Shakespeare depicts as a man of such unassailable Christian purity that he almost convinces the murderers Richard sends to dispatch him in the Tower to lay down their weapons, is now an entitled brat who treats Richard with unthinking condescension. (Misguided as this interpretation is, you can’t fault Williams, who does well with Clarence’s beautiful verse.) For some reason the young princes – the rightful heirs to Edward’s throne, whose deaths in the Tower Richard also arranges – are played not by boys but by young women (Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely), the single case of cross-gender casting in the production. Is this meant to be a Brechtian touch? Played by actresses, their scenes don’t make sense. And at the end of the play, when Richmond (Nathan Darrow) defeats Richard in battle, a hook appears from the flies so the triumphant warrior (and new monarch) can hang the dead king upside down, presumably an allusion to the execution of Mussolini. While Richard is alive Spacey can’t be said to upstage the rest of the cast but in death he does: you can’t concentrate on the final lines of the play because you’re fixated on the movie star hanging by his feet and wondering if he can make it to the curtain call without throwing up. The night I saw the show, one of the soldiers reached out to steady him when he seemed to be swinging too much. Now that’s not Brechtian – it’s just bad direction.

Propeller has been performing Richard III in repertory with The Comedy of Errors on tour (Hampstead is its final stop); I saw both shows on the same day, and as if the effort weren’t sufficient the actors came into the lobby at intermission and performed mariachi music for the audience. (Their Comedy of Errors has a Mexican setting.) The apparently boundless energy of this compact (fourteen-member) company and the bonus that their talents extend to the musical are part and parcel of the troupe ethic – an hommage, presumably, to their Elizabethan forebears, like the fact that men play women’s roles. In a farce like The Comedy of Errors the cross-dressing suggests a gay esthetic – Robert Hands as the exasperated, put-upon Adriana, whose husband philanders, and David Newman as her sister Luciana, who finds herself the all-too-willing object of a man she thinks is her brother-in-law (but who is actually his long-lost twin), are expert and uproarious drag performers. But in Richard the actors who play the women – Dominic Tighe as Elizabeth, Jon Trenchard as Anne, Tony Bell as Margaret and Kelsey Brookfield in the brief role of Richard’s mother the Duchess of York – make every attempt do so, so to speak, straight. That is, while Adriana and Luciana are stylized versions of women, the female characters in Richard are played entirely without affectation, and these utterly remarkable actors take us right past what might feel at first like a Brechtian alienation effect (men appearing in gowns) to the emotions of the women they happen to be portraying: Anne’s rage and then sexual confusion and finally resignation, Elizabeth’s anguish over her murdered children.

Richard Clothier as Richard III
Unlike Mendes, Hall has a definite concept, and it’s a brilliant one. His Richard III is a modern-day horror movie, with Richard (Richard Clothier) as a nightmare villain, a sadistic serial killer who takes delight not only in the game but also in the perpetration of his grisly murders, though they’re usually performed by others at his command. The executioners are medics in hospital gowns and surgical masks who perform their ghastly deeds behind privacy screens but with drills and chainsaws; Hall wittily mines not only our experience of horror pictures but our collective fear of hospitals, while he uses the anonymity of the doctor-murderers to sketch in the idea of Richard’s kingship as a fascist reign of terror. (During intermission, some of them linger in the aisles; I caught one over my shoulder as I took my seat.) And they sing as they move their screens about the stage – the Dies Irae, the drinking song from the operetta The Student Prince, and, most unsettlingly, a lullaby for the doomed princes, who appear in the form of blank-faced manikins manipulated by actors (Sam Sainsbury and Richard Frame), a comment on their being only partially formed figures who are merely pawns in their uncle’s ambition. Hall does nothing by halves: after they’re dispatched the children show up again as heads floating in a jar that Elizabeth carries as she wails her grief. This is a black-comic Richard III. Chekhov said, famously, that a playwright who introduces a gun in the first act had better have a character fire it by the fourth; when we see a traveler curtain upstage made of strips of plastic and the ensemble wielding power tools, we know that curtain is going to wind up sprayed with someone’s blood, and when it happens we laugh in appreciation at Hall’s audaciousness. But our tendency to respond to the playing out of our worst fears in a horror-movie setting with laughter, like our laughter at a director’s success in scaring the pants off us, doesn’t necessarily mitigate the depth of our discomfort; Hitchcock knew that, Brian De Palma knows it and so does Edward Hall. Clothier’s Richard is one terrifying villain, and the darkness in which he plunges England – not to mention the private agony he causes Anne and Elizabeth, as well as his incarcerated (and, in this show, blinded) brother Clarence (John Dougall) – is profound.

In most productions of the play Richard’s change in the second half is just a matter of his luck turning, but a smart modern-day director sees it as an opportunity for a psychological shift. Clothier’s Richard begins to fall apart after the deaths of the royal children. For this section of the plot Shakespeare wrote in a murderer, Tyrell, who has a remorseful soliloquy after he kills them. (In the Old Vic Richard, the king receives their bloodied nightgowns, though Tyrell pointedly reports that he smothered them. Now that’s a typical Sam Mendes touch – ostentatious and nonsensical.) Hall depicts him as a mute figure in a plastic mask (played by Wayne Cater), to distinguish his deed from the other killings Richard orders. And when Richard peeks behind the screen at his handiwork, for the first time he’s staggered by the horror he’s wrought. He loses his step and never regains it. In Clothier’s magnificent performance, that’s the beginning of Richard’s demise: we can chart it through his inability to bend Elizabeth to his will when he tells her he wants to marry her daughter, the visitation of the ghosts the night before his battle with the Earl of Richmond (Robert Hands), and of course his defeat on the field. Cunningly, Hall stages Richard’s death with comic understatement after all the gore we’ve seen: Richmond (costumed by Michael Pavelka in white, like the knight in a medieval adventure) cuts him off with a clean pistol shot. (Well, two: like any horror-movie monster, he stirs to life again and has to be exterminated a second time.) The moment is shocking and satisfying.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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