Over the past few years the Bridge Project, headed up by Sam Mendes, has earned itself an impressive reputation. I unfortunately did not have the pleasure of seeing any of their production until last night. Their last and final project, Richard III with Kevin Spacey, lived up to all the hype. It is rare to see such a flawless production. Everything from the acting, to the sets, lighting, costumes, video, music and projections were perfectly effective in creating a world in which to tell what is ultimately a difficult story. The play itself is practically a laundry list of murders and the audience must be familiar with each character before their inevitable demise. One of the ways this production helped its audience was by projecting character names at key moments between scenes directing the audience’s focus, keeping those less familiar with the play (and I’m one of them) from getting lost amid all the gore.
Set on a nearly empty stage, as is the fashion, with rows of doors lining the sides of the stage, structural lighting was used to divide up the space. Characters entered and exited through one door or another always backlit. Not only did this cast ominous shadows foretelling their entrance, with Richard’s hunchbacked form immediately apparent, but also created an anxious anticipation.
During Richard’s final manipulation before being crowned, playing at piety and reluctance to take the thrown, he wasn’t on stage. He acted offstage as a video was projected above Buckingham’s fervent appeals to the public to call Richard to the thrown. This was a brilliant device, emphasizing Richard’s manipulative posing and theatrics, while also making all the subtlety of Spacey’s facial acting accessible to the audience. It allowed the audience to have a much more personal interaction with the character, seeing his deception up close, than is often possible in an 800 hundred seat theater.
A row of drummers, deafening as it echoed around the house, announced Richard III’s coronation on a stage which had opened up at the back, adding a substantial amount of space, emphasized by the number of doors, decreasing in size as they now extend far back. Each door contained an X, which the audience saw placed earlier by Queen Margaret as part of her curse, prophesying the fall of the Plantagenets. Richard III approaches the thrown and falls before reaching it. Spacey is brilliant at portraying Richard III’s deformity, accompanied by an anger at his frailty which explains his mercilessness. Lines of light projected on the floor of the stage add a dramatic element and emphasized the size and depth of the space.
Its after intermission that the audience is shown how horrible Richard III can be. Spacey moves between a veneer of cooperation, seen more often in the first half, and outright demands, often in the form of violent outbursts that manage to terrify even from my seat in the gallery. The high point of Spacey’s performance, however, is the soliloquy following his dream in which the ghosts of his victims confront him. He arises before going to battle and almost manically faces his deeds and fears in a time when he needs loyalty. Shakespeare’s language at this moment is particularly rhythmic and Spacey’s delivery did it justice, almost chanting the words in his rising anxiety, building a kind of sympathy for his wretched character and preparing the audience for the coming battle scene. This production was dramatic, suspenseful and terrifying and I can’t praise it enough.