Report: Kevin Spacey Plays Richard III in San Francisco

 

The veteran film star
plays the power-mad hunchback king to the hilt during a two-week run at San Francisco’s Curran
Theatre. (Shows run
through Oct. 29.)

 

By
JUD COST

 

Kevin
Spacey has been unintentionally groomed to play the lead in Shakespeare’s
Richard III for decades. And he plays the power-mad, murderous, hunchback king
as an uncontrollable force of nature. It’s a breathtaking performance to
experience in the close confines of San Francisco’s
Curran Theatre, as Spacey does everything short
of confronting the audience directly to accomplish his mission. 

 

Spacey
has a long history of playing unsavory characters. He shone bright in David
Mamet’s 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross as part of a marvelous ensemble cast that included a roomful of scheming,
foul-mouthed real estate salesmen played by Jack Lemon, Alec Baldwin, Al
Pacino, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. Spacey was also right at home with Russell
Crowe and Guy Pearce in 1997’s L.A.
Confidential
. Primed by the evidence-tampering in the O.J. Simpson murder
trial, the movie portrayed rampant corruption within the Los Angeles Police
Department. Spacey even played a crippled con artist in 1995’s The Usual Suspects and won a best
supporting actor Oscar.

 

Unlike
Ian McKellan’s version of Richard performed in the 1990’s at London’s National Theatre and set in Hitler’s
pretty much humorless Third Reich, Spacey milks certain situations tonight for
laughs with the timing of a skilled standup comedian. But when it’s time to
howl at the moon like a rabid and wounded jackal, he delivers the goods.

 

Directed
by Sam Mendes, who won a best picture Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty, which starred Spacey as a suburban dad with
unacceptable (and dangerous) sexual cravings, the sharp pacing tonight is
suited to a filmmaker’s eye. That in spite of the self-imposed limitations of
Tom Piper’s sparse set which consists of a large room with multiple tall doors
through which the proper furniture was carried between scenes. Things brighten
considerably when images of moving storm clouds are projected above the doors
on the left. A squadron of live percussionists playing very large drums
punctuates certain scenes with all the fury of an indoors thunderstorm.

 

This
traveling version of Richard III wowed critics in its original engagement at London’s Old Vic theatre
and is now slated for limited runs in select worldwide markets. Dressed in
unremarkable late Victorian attire by Catherine Zuber, most of the players,
including Spacey, speak in their own native version of the English tongue.
British accents are forced upon no one. The cast of 20 is almost equally
divided between British and American actors.

 

Strapped
into a thigh-to-ankle brace that apparently helps keep one leg canted inward at
a painfully awkward angle, and bent from the waist with a large hump protruding
from his shoulders, Spacey hobbles and skitters around the stage like a large
poisonous crab.

 

When
the current King of England, Edward IV, dies, his deformed brother, Richard,
Duke of Gloucester, is far down the line of succession. But not for long.
Richard conspires to have everyone ahead of him murdered, including the King’s
two young sons (played curiously here by a pair of young women).

 

One
incident is particularly unsettling. When the head of Hastings, who protests
Richard’s murderous ambition too loudly, is brought into the room in a
cardboard box, Richard stabs at its contents vigorously with his cane, and the
sickening squish, something like a pumpkin being prodded by a fireplace poker,
is all too audible.

 

As
his brief reign begins to crumble before a decisive battle with supporters of
the Earl of Richmond at Bosworth Field,
Richard is slumped in fitful slumber to the far right of a long table spread
across the stage. With Richmond
seated far left, the middle of the table is occupied by the ghosts of the seven
people Richard has murdered in his rapid ascent to the throne, and they aren’t
very happy. It’s also a chilling and ominous reference to Da Vinci’s The Last
Supper, that things may not go well tomorrow.

 

The
brief final sword encounter (“My kingdom for a horse”), skillfully
performed by Richard and Richmond,
ends with the dispatching of the bloodthirsty, crippled monarch. But one final
thrill remains for an audience, already wrung dry from this energetic
performance. A long rope dangling from above is lowered to the ground and
looped tightly around Richard’s ankles. As the crowd gasps, the dead King is
slowly hoisted to a dangerous height and left dangling upside down for what
seems like a very long time before Richmond
intones the final stanzas of the play.

 

Spacey  and the cast received several well-deserved
standing ovations, and bouquets were also in order for the fine performances of
three veteran women: Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret
and Maureen Anderman as the Duchess of York. The exit-poll verdict seemed
unanimously favorable among those leaving the theatre. Even the guy waiting in
line with me to get into the restroom at the Jack In The Box across the street
was very impressed. As she collected her things after Spacey’s inglorious trip
to the rafters, the elderly lady seated next to me could only shake her head
and say, “Poor Kevin.” To which should be added, Bravo Kevin. He’s
set the bar very high for future performances of this endlessly rich work.

 

 

 

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