I'm a bit worried about Kevin Spacey. His performance as Richard III at the Old Vic deserves all the superlatives which the critics have showered on it, but I hope his back muscles will stand the strain of taking this production on a world tour which will last until March 2012. His left leg is twisted inside a set of braces and his foot points inwards; he hops around the stage lopsided, gesturing and poking with a stick in his left hand to great dramatic effect, completely dominating the stage for a full three hours. I just hope he can sustain it not just in London but in Spain, Singapore, Australia, the USA, Greece, Turkey, Hong Kong and China as well.
There are essentially two plays on stage at the Old Vic; Richard acts out the first with the other characters on stage, and the second in a series of intimate and complicit exchanges with the audience. As Spacey says in the programme, the way Richard addresses the audience is unique in Shakespeare's writing. Director Sam Mendes describes this as 'incredibly modern' though it's a technique that the theatre used consistently for several centuries, until the advent of 19th century naturalism and the 'fourth wall'. Mendes is right to distinguish between the interior monologues used by Richard II and Henry V, who talk partly to themselves and partly to God, and the way Richard III eyeballs the audience directly. In this production we actually get a third angle on Richard, because the key scene when he accepts the crown with mock-reluctance is projected live on a big screen which allows us to see every hypocritical twitch of his eyes. Spacey the consummate screen actor makes the most of this.
Of the rest of the Anglo-American actors, the standout performance comes from that great Shakespearean actor Chuck Iwuji as the oleaginous Buckingham. Iwuji has long experience at the RSC and was a wonderful Henry VI in their most recent cycle of the history plays. I share the view that Richard III makes most sense when understood as the fourth part of Henry VI, bringing the historic cycle about the divisions of 15th century England to its climax. There's a minimum of explanation in the opening scenes, which make little sense without a memory of Richard's role in the previous play. When the play is performed on its own, it makes sense to remove it from its English 15th century context, but finding an alternative setting can be problematic. In Richard Eyre's famous NT production with Ian McKellen, it was the fascist 1930s, a coherent background that made sense. Here Sam Mendes and his designer Tom Piper are deliberately imprecise about the modern setting, and I think this is less effective. The time is NOW -- the word is projected at the opening of the play -- but the costumes and props seem to be an eclectic mix of 21st century and early 20th century. The programme gives us pictures of Gaddafi and Mubarak, but the relevance of the play to modern dictatorship in the middle east isn't hinted at in the staging. Greater precision about time and place always pays dividends, in my view.
As this is probably the last time I'll see Kevin Spacey on stage at the Old Vic, it's worth taking a moment to measure his achievement over the past decade in turning London's most atmospheric major theatre back into an unmissable destination. Last night there wasn't an empty seat, and it's returns only for the rest of the London run. I adore the Old Vic for personal reasons -- I used to go there as a teenager in the early years of the National Theatre in the 1960s, and it's great to experience the theatrical buzz which Spacey has created. A few of the early productions were poorly chosen, but more recently his regime has produced a great string of hits. It's a different audience, younger and more prosperous than the one you see at the National, and the Blackberry count is quite high. But let's remember, this theatre matches the RSC and the National in its standards without a penny of subsidy. Arise, Sir Kevin!