October 27th, 2011

Shakespeare, Will

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

Last night I saw Kevin Spacey in an incredibly powerful version of Shakespeare's Richard III. At the Curran Theatre in San Francisco until October 29; there were some people trying to sell tickets, so you might get lucky.

Richard III is a tough role for a number of reasons. For much of the play, he is written as a much nastier Snidely Whiplash, an over-the-top evil clown. That sort of portrayal can be fun for an actor (Kenneth Branagh was clearly having a ball playing the mad scientist/mechanical spider in Wild Wild West), but it can be limiting as well -- especially since the actor must shift into the tormented, desperate Richard III of the final act. Moreover, Richard carries this long, demanding play, and in many portrayals he has to do so while bent and limping as a hunchback, Despite contortions, hunchback, cane, and a steel leg brace, Kevin Spacey showed extraordinary grace and athleticism in the role.

And he was funny! OK, not all the way through; this was not Richard Dreyfus miserably lurching across the stage in a pink satin cape, as in The Goodbye Girl. But some lines I'd always read and heard as serious -- the scene where Richard attempts to seduce Anne in the presence of her father-in-law's corpse (and he's already killed her husband and father) -- were given a wry humor. It wasn't a perverse reading, it did fit the lines, and it gave some needed lightness to a play otherwise full of horrors and shocking, sudden deaths.

Richard III as written passes the Bechdel test; the three queens and Dowager Duchess of York have conversations about grief and loss and politics. Gemma Jones plays Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI, as a tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide -- as she was described in Henry VI, Part Three. Now in old age, everyone she once loved dead, she curses Richard and the Yorkists with eloquent fury and a tinge of madness. Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth displays grace, dignity, and courage even under pressure. (Not, alas, as the fabled blonde she actually was.)

Most of the cast are excellent. I was not especially impressed with the actor who played Richmond (AKA Henry VII), but Chuk Iwuji, the Black actor who played Buckingham, was especially powerful.

And some of the violence really is shocking, even to blase modern audiences. I'm not giving anything away, but be prepared. This is a disturbing play.

The set was simple: a few chairs, a table or two, moved on and off as required; a scrim; a series of doors on both sides and the back of the stage, below battered white-painted brickwork. In this case minimal was powerful. The lighting design may be the best I've ever seen: generally unobtrusive, but occasionally brilliant white lights cast pitiless, sometimes gigantic shadows to emphasize certain individuals in certain scenes. For music, there were drums, sometimes offstage, sometimes played onstage, and some eerie keyboards. Very, very effective.

The first act comprised the first three acts of the play; at about 120 minutes, it really ran too long, especially since there are a number of scenes where Richard doesn't appear. I'd been warned by a review and limited my fluid intake beforehand, so I wasn't writhing and thinking of my bladder and could focus on the play. After a 15-minute interval, we got down to the nitty-gritty of the final two acts. You know the line: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

The final image of the play isn't in the text, but dear God, was it effective. Nobody will ever end the play so strikingly again. In the Valhalla Coffee House, where dead writers forgather, Shakespeare is buying rounds for everybody.

If you see this, it may help to brush up your Shakespeare -- though that's not essential. I know a fair bit about the history, but the play compelled me to the point where I didn't care about the divagations from history and plausibility. Another person who attended told me that she knows nothing about the period, but the play held together for her, too.

Another thing I should note, which I also felt when I saw Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: the writing is astonishingly good. There are reasons Shakespeare has lasted 400 years, despite drastic changes in our language and culture. Insight, compassion, complexity, wit -- yes, he had all those. And he wrote speeches an actor can say with ease -- a tougher proposition than you may think -- that are also richly, memorably expressed. So many of the lines are beautiful, and this isn't even a particularly poetic play.

This outing was a birthday gift from the generous and imaginative [personal profile] wild_irises, who accompanied me, along with [profile] abostick59. The Curran is a beautiful theatre, and our pre-play supper at Max's on the Square was delicious. (Best Reuben sandwich I've had on this coast.) A wonderful, memorable evening.

Another friend reviews the same production, mentioning details I didn't touch.

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