‘Richard III’ @ The Old Vic Theatre

Rumour has it that this production receives a standing ovation every night. I don’t doubt it. I walk out of many theatre performances murmuring about set design or use of music or something pretentious about the fourth wall. I rarely walk out of a performance stunned.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III isn’t simply excellent, or innovative, or skilled; he’s astonishing. Critics have said plenty about his interpretation of Richard III and I think he deserves due regard for doing something new with an old character. But the best thing about Spacey is that he’s simply a damn good performer.

Spacey opens the second half with a long pause and a satisfied sigh. The audience crack up laughing. Anyone else might have a got a titter, but we roared. To say we were eating out of the palm of his hand would be an understatement – we were crawling on our knees, hanging on his words. I felt he relished every moment, and through that, we relished Richard’s coming to power as a delicious guilty pleasure.

Richard III is an exciting story of a man with a grudge against his lot in life, manipulating and destroying those in his path to reach power. It is political and complicated in places but Sam Mendes’ direction and the fantastic work of the production team make the characters look and seem distinctive. The focus is placed on the raw and explosive emotion of the characters, so that if you don’t follow every nuance of the plot (which I didn’t), you don’t miss out.

Understanding Shakespeare largely comes down to the performer knowing how to communicate it, and there’s more to it than ignoring the verse form and avoiding that declarative delivery. In this case, there were no disappointments. The language blended into the atmosphere, so it seemed unusual and at times, beautiful, but never like a barrier. The acting was outstandingly moving, considering the length of the play and the range of emotions of the characters. This performance shines as a wonderful way to experience a complex text. Making Shakespeare’s play understandable is good; making it come alive is incredible.

Richard III is a nasty character to say the least and a hero you hate is difficult to invest in. Critics have commented that Spacey is not the villain that you expect with various allusions to Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film interpretation. Actually, for me, it was precisely Spacey’s balance of the villain and the entertainer that made his performance such a thrill. He took the text and teased out the witty side of Richard, so that this bloody, wretch of a man became our droll hero. His soliloquies were involving and compelling. He shared his jokes with us alone, mocking his company and meeting our eyes with a cheeky grin. We craved his attention; he was at his most captivating when confiding his treachery to us alone. The audience became his biggest accomplices and he revelled in it.

The set design, made mostly of doors, is clever and symbolic without drawing attention to itself. Likewise, the musical effects heighten the atmosphere without becoming imposing and the drums in the build-up to battle are furiously tense. The charged atmosphere welcomes the final scene, which I won’t spoil for you, but is a suitably memorable tableau of our anti-hero.

Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth and Chuk Iwuji as Buckingham deserve high praise. But Spacey is easily the best thing about this performance and it is worth seeing merely for him. The Old Vic has special tickets reserved for Under 25s so despite being a sell-out show, there are still some left for many students, at only £12. As someone that shies away from Shakespearean performances, this is a spectacular event that cannot fail to impress. It is a once in a lifetime show that is both accomplished and magnetic. Without a doubt, the best Shakespeare I’ve seen.

Katherine Dixon

ArtsArts Reviews

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