With the fall of so many dictators in 2011 and the ongoing violence in Syria, there is perhaps no more relevant time than now to stage a production of Richard III. Shakespeare’s second longest play, which chronicles the crippled Duke of Gloucester’s manipulation into kinghood and his ultimate fall from it, is a rich character study of how power can quickly turn to disillusionment. Through highly symbolic staging and masterful design, director Sam Mendes has put a unique spin on one of Shakespeare’s classics.
Kevin Spacey, who plays the roles titular character, delivers a performance that is as captivating as it is physical. From the opening lines, Spacey dominates the stage with boyish charisma. His constant quips to the audience beg you to play with him and by the time you’ve stopped laughing, you’ve forgotten he’s the bad guy. Playfully, Spacey manipulates his cane, constantly moving about the stage despite his cumbersome brace. Often the last into scenes and certainly the most active, Gloucester’s smooth control of the space is contrasted with the other characters, whose staging is stern and stoic. As the play unfolds, the vast difference seems more and more deliberate and by the time Gloucester is crowned as king, he has full ownership of the stage. It feels as though the audience has been asked to play in the boyhood fantasy of Richard III.
The design too adds to this sense of boyhood fantasy. The set is a single room with doors surrounding every side. The bare walls, wooden texture, and slightly skewed angles give it the feel of a masculinized dollhouse stripped of all femininity. Bright lights on the outside shine through the cracks in the doors, as though the set is a constructed world inside of a larger space. When the set does finally open (onto a large portrait of King Richard III) an army of toy soldiers marches out playing their timpani drums. Richard’s boyhood fantasy has been realized.
By the end of the play, Richard III has only a tenuous grip on power and Mendes’ staging reflects this. In the buildup to the final battle, scenes cut back and forth with the stage split between Richard III and the Duke of Richmond. Spacey’s graceful movement across the stage is gone and his quips to the audience have ended, so much so that the famous lines “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” are delivered upstage away from the audience as if even we can’t hear him. Richard’s boyish war game has come to an end. And in his defeat, he becomes disconnected entirely, hung upside down and facing away from the audience, a final symbol that his fantasy is over.
Richard III is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music until March 4.
Image courtesy of BAM.