Cogito: John Branch

Richard III: To Be or Not to Be

A certain sense of disappointment (as well as the onset of a bad cold) led me to leave BAM’s Harvey Theater at the interval following the longish first part of Richard III ―the final venture in the transatlantic Bridge Project run by BAM, director Sam Mendes, and his Neal Street production company. Of the three parts of this “boy-meets-crown, boy-gets-crown, boy-loses-crown” fable, two had transpired. Kevin Spacey, as Richard, had barely maneuvered his twisted body onto the throne and slipped the crown onto his head before the lights blacked out and the curtain dropped.

Many of the text’s high points and tricky passages were already behind us. Richard’s opening speech came off with great brio, as did his wooing of Lady Anne, in which he wins over a woman whose husband and son he has recently killed. Other fine scenes: the curses upon practically everyone uttered by old Queen Margaret; the murder of Clarence, Richard’s brother, in a scene that’s equal parts macabre, comic, and ironic; and Richard’s seduction of the populace, stage-managed by Buckingham. These had thoroughly won over most of the audience and mostly impressed me on the preview night I attended—the manipulation of the crowd used video and was a perfect delight—and more potential showpieces lay ahead: the prick of Richard’s conscience as he’s visited by the ghosts of all those he has dispatched so far, and the concluding Battle of Bosworth Field.

What seemed amiss, then? Nips and tucks had been made; that was only to be expected. But the costuming made it a little hard to distinguish the supporting players; the production used a spare, vaguely modern design approach, with almost all of the men wearing dark suits and the stage nearly bare most of the time. This show travels light, which is helpful for a world tour but may leave the audience hungry for cues. More important, though, is that the connecting scenes between those showpiece moments sometimes seemed flat, sometimes too brisk, and sometimes both.

One got the sense of events picking up speed and Richard knocking off his obstacles with dispatch; he impressed even himself, as a line reading in his Lady Anne scene revealed. But one also got the sense that details of the drama were being brushed aside. Instead of feeling like the steadily thrilling and chilling rise to power of a brilliant but ruthless man, this big chunk of the play felt sometimes boring—or, to put it more politely (as Ben Brantley of The New York Times did after seeing the show in London last summer), there are longueurs in the show’s brevity. There may even be one gag too many.

Gags? Yes, there are gags. Among the groundlings who nowadays are seated highest, not lowest, in the house, the show was often a riot. What we had at BAM was a Richard III who was a scintillating and multifaceted comic villain surrounded by a Richard III that was lit by flashes but a little less than consistent. Clearly, Richard makes himself the star of his drama, and director Mendes has likewise made this production a star vehicle for Spacey. What disappointed me is that I was left unsure just what kind of play this relatively early work is. Scholars, as far as I know, usually judge it to be a history play but not a tragedy (despite its full title in the First Folio, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third). In the hands of Mendes and Spacey, it’s harder to say what it is, other than a lot of fun.

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