The Bridge Project’s Richard III, by William Shakespeare, with Kevin Spacey, at BAM…with a backward look at the Donmar Warehouse King Lear

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Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music - Harvey Theater. Photo Joan Marcus.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – Harvey Theater. Photo Joan Marcus.

Richard III
by William Shakespeare

The Bridge Project at BAM, through March 4
Produced by BAM, The Old Vic & Neal Street

Directed by Sam Mendes
Scenery by Tom Piper
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Paul Pyant
Projection by Jon Driscoll
Sound by Gareth Fry
Music by Mark Bennett
Musical Coordination and Direction by Curtis Moore
Fight Direction by Terry King
Artistic Associate Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Casting by Daniel Swee and Maggie Lunn
International Tour Producer Claire Béjanin


Maureen Anderman* – Duchess of York
Stephen Lee Anderson* – Sir Richard Ratcliffe
Jeremy Bobb* – Catesby & 2nd Murderer & 2nd Citizen
Nathan Darrow* – Lord Grey & Richmond
Jack Ellis – Lord Hastings
Haydn Gwynne – Queen Elizabeth
Chuk Iwuji – Buckingham
Isaiah Johnson* – Rivers & Lord Mayor
Gemma Jones – Queen Margaret
Andrew Long* – King Edward IV & Bishop of Ely
Katherine Manners – Young Prince Richard
Howard Overshown* – Brackenbury & Keeper & Sir Thomas Vaughan
Simon Lee Phillips – Tyrell & 3rd Citizen & Norfolk
Gary Powell – Lord Lovel & 1st Murderer & 1st Citizen
Michael Rudko* – Lord Stanley
Annabel Scholey – Lady Anne
Kevin Spacey* – Richard, Duke of Gloucester
Gavin Stenhouse – Dorset & Urswick
Hannah Stokely – Edward
Chandler Williams* – George, Duke of Clarence
*indicates American member of company

(See also Daniel B. Gallagher’s review of Richard III at Stratford Ontario, with Seana McKenna as Richard, and his review of Richard III at the Silvano Toti Globe Theatre, Rome.)

This production of Shakespeare’s Richard III has reached BAM after a sold-out run at the Old Vic and a tour which included Epidavros, Istanbul, Naples, Sydney, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, and San Francisco, among others. This reminded me of the sort of thing the British Council does, but of course this Shakespearian globe-trotting was a private enterprise, funded largely by Bank of America and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. And course the whole point of the production’s parent organization, The Bridge Project, was to combine British and American casts. Perhaps there should be an organization beyond the British Council to cultivate, study, and promote the global English language, as it used on the streets and in literature around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria, Guyana, and others. And the way English is behaving in the physical and cyber-world today, it may need some international body to encourage it in good manners, kicking it under the table, when it starts to monopolize the conversation.

Richard III is The Bridge Project’s last production, and I must say that I’m sorry it’s over. As I think back over it, the performances I saw seem better in retrospect than they did immediately after the performance. Along with stupendous performances by some great actors, Simon Russell Beale above all, there were some awkwardly directed scenes and some uneven work among even leading actors—mostly the Americans, I regret to say. Yet the end result, in spite of those annoyances, was surprisingly satisfying.

The Bridge Project was perhaps an excellent ploy in dealing with Actors’ Equity, but one might question there was a real artistic reason for it. One might even claim that the premise was misguided. In fact there is no dearth of American actors who can speak Shakespeare’s lines in correct rhythm and with style, using vowels and diphthongs from either side of the Atlantic. There are programs in Shakespearean acting all over the country, for example The Interlochen Shakespeare Festival in Michigan and Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. There are many others. Shakespeare & Company, built around a British founding core, have trained a host of actors in the style, from local high school students to young professionals from all around the U.S.

Americans adore Shakespeare as much today as they did in the nineteenth century, and there is a national tradition, which isn’t discussed much outside specialist circles. So, there is no excuse for the problems of some of the American actors in The Bridge Project. The direction seemed to push the American actors to speak their lines with almost exaggerated American accents and to adopt a plodding, lurchy delivery of the blank verse. I’ve heard American actors fare better in Shakespeare—and Chekhov, the other classic playwright featured in the Bridge Project. For that matter there has been equally weak acting from the other side of the Atlantic as well, especially in this Richard III. My reservations about the performances, however, have been more in the details than in the overall experience and the dramaturgical treatment of the plays. Still, the idea of an Anglo-American pact in classic theater seems more fitted to Churchill’s time than ours, when the RSC-sponsored multilingual Indian Midsummer Night’s Dream seems a more relevant approach for our time.

So, if the concept of The Bridge Project was a bit wonky and the performances as well, they still tilted more towards excellence than deficiency. This unevenness, as much as Sam Mendes’ directorial approach, spurred me to concentrate more on individual scenes rather than the grand sweep of the play, as in the impressively consistent Lear from the Donmar Warehouse, which BAM audiences had the privilege of seeing last year. In Richard III, rather than arrive at a dialectic harmony, Sam Mendes’ method seemed to create more of a conflict than ever between the two styles, British and American, artificially heightened, or even created, for the occasion. Perhaps because of the starkness of the stage design, perhaps because of the exposure of the younger Shakespeare’s dramaturgy—one-on-one interchanges between pairs of actors and limited three-way conversations even when more are on stage—the self-created Anglo-American dichotomy seemed even more unresolved—not that it wasn’t an absorbing show, and, in the end, a significant achievement.

The very best thing about it was Messrs. Mendes’ and Spacey’s genuine knowledge of the play and their willingness to let it have its way. In spite of the displacement in time of the production (to “NOW,” as somewhat sophomorically and inaccurately stated in the first projected title), the overall concept and the individual performances showed at least a desire to remain true to what the First Quarto and the Folio give us. This was a production in which, for the most part, the audience could concentrate on Shakespeare’s writing and appreciate his use of imagery and rhetoric, thanks to the often clear diction and restraint in cutting the text. The most deficient part of the production consisted of the modern business and military dress—now routine in theater and opera—and the often weak “pointing” of some scenes. By that I mean not only matters of emphasis but the final gestures of each scene and of important speeches. Some segments even seemed unfinished, as if they were under-rehearsed, but a more plausible reason might be that some of the cast members were tired after much traveling—although certainly not Kevin Spacey! This production seemed to rely more on projected titles (a not inappropriate bit of Brechtian intertextuality in reverse after Arturo Ui, which refers back to Richard) than on the work of the actors to articulate and establish the basic stresses of the action. In his own time, Shakespeare had only himself and his fellow actors gestures and speech to accomplish this, and it is one of the easier aspects of Elizabethan theater to carry over to the modern stage. Dramaturgically the production was an odd mixture of realistic and stylized elements—for instance in the methods of murder—which I thought, didn’t sit well together. I found Richard III to be the most erratic of the Bridge Project productions, although it was still immensely rewarding. That is the curious paradox of the Bridge Project.

Sam Mendes approached the play by concentrating on each scene as it came along, rather than trying to create a conceptual or emotional unity, as Michael Grandage did in his King Lear, at the expense of a few small cuts. The two productions are diametrically opposed in their aims. Grandage, working with a mature tragedy—not only one of Shakespeare’s most developed and profound plays, but one of his most accomplished in its unity—wanted to enhance these qualities by focusing on its principal lines. The Lear was tightly knit in another way as well. The technique and approach of the entire cast was very much of a piece, with only one of the characters, Cordelia, noticeably weaker than the others (which reminds one of just how brief Cordelia’s time on stage actually is, and what skill is required to bring her across in the round). By contrast, if the King Lear of Sir Derek Jacobi were to become a star turn against a less vivid background, neither Sir Derek nor Grandage could be blamed. However, they collaborated in a consummate theatrical feat to avoid just that. Although Sir Derek is an actor who concentrates on the telling detail and his technique is hardly invisible, his performance was seamlessly woven intro the ensemble. The result was a flow of tears. One man was sobbing uncontrollably behind me through Act V. Richard III, as Shakespeare wrote it, is not moving in that way. Its genre calls for something else, although the audience respond to the pathos of Clarence’s and perhaps Hastings’ murder, and certainly that of the young princes. None of these were particularly affecting in the Bridge Project production. The great moment came in the gathering of the Royal women in Act IV, but more of that later. Richard III lacks the unity of King Lear, not just because it is a raw early work, but because it is a history play (although called a tragedy in the First Quarto) that had a specific story to tell with specific events to relate. Moreover Richard’s series of infamous murders made it an especially episodic play, because the Elizabethan audience would have looked forward to seeming all of them in full gory detail. For that reason, it would be a mistake for a director to go against the grain of the play and its genre and to attempt to create a unity and flow that isn’t a part of it. The character of Richard, morever, is not a tragic hero or anti-hero (although it might be possible to bring some of the anti-hero out without being totally perverse), but a Machiavellian villain with both comic and serious aspects—something Shakespeare studiously avoided in creating Macbeth, a figure with a story in many ways similar to Richard’s. As such a monstrous character type, Richard can only stand out, and the way in which he is written—with a specific actor in mind—hardly calls for the kind of subtlety Jacobi brought to his Lear. Richard III always comes up in the context of Shakespeare’s roots in popular theater, and that’s exactly what it is, although Shakespeare’s treatment of its moral point of view and the process of history was already bringing into a higher realm.

Mendes and Spacey understand this perfectly well, and their approach to Richard is entirely in this vein. What Mendes gives us in essence a family drama, which is how Shakespeare wrote it. A motley collection of men and women unsympathetic to themselves and to the audience, the last of York and Lancaster are exhausted and poisoned by a generation of strife. It seems only natural that one of them should come into the world deformed in mind and body, and that he should be able to take advantage of their mutual mistrust and hatred to seize the family prize, the crown. We should understand the crown not only as political power over the state, but as a special kind of token within the family—one which drives them apart into lethal intrigue, as the dying King Edward IV’s attempt to extract reconciliation among the family shows. While Richard’s relatives are constantly addressing him as the lowest kinds of animal, all the way down to the spider, he is one of them, even emblematically so. In a true Machiavellian spirit, he is the most intelligent and alive of them—which is actually not elaborated in this production. Shakespeare stresses the genetic and familial aspect of Richard in his stress on the mothers of the family and their experience of Richard’s evil plots and deeds. These women, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, in spite of their corruption through family infighting, remain connected to the natural order, and when Richard, the self-made man, confronts them in Act IV, he is brought into conflict—and, in our minds, comparison, with Nature herself. This production did a fairly good job of showing the unease, fear, and resentment among the family members, but in general, although there were a few exceptions, I thought it could have been portrayed more vividly and specifically in the fine points of the characters’ interactions.

While some roles were simply unequal to their importance, a few of the more interesting performances will give you an idea of what the production is like.

Typical of the Bridge Project’s approach to American diction was the work of the obviously very gifted midwestern actor Nathan Darrow as Richmond. His dark good looks reminds one of Gregory Peck, and his somewhat wooden acting did as well. The anger and determination of his portrayal seemed to take a back seat in favor of Richmond’s dignity as the founder of the House of Tudor, which reached its peak in Elizabeth’s reign and came to an end less than a decade after Richard III‘s premiere, mostly likely in 1594. Mr. Darrow developed his craft in his native Kansas City in classical and contemporary theater before moving to New York. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to enjoy his work—which I did very much—so I have no idea how he approaches Shakespeare with other directors. He seemed to emphasize his midwestern accent as strongly as possible and spoke his lines with a heavy, unmusical plod. This only stressed Richmond’s thankless typological function as the outsider who, like Fortinbras in Hamlet, arrives in Act V to clean up the mess the protagonists have left behind. Of course Shakespeare took pains to make much more of these figures than they literally are. While I found Nathan Darrow’s treatment of his words annoying in the moment, my appreciation of his acting grew, and by his final speech I found I was beginning to look back on his performance as particularly effective. His interpretation of the future King Henry VII had a weight and muscularity entirely suitable for bringing the violent story, with its many nooks and crannies, to an end. Chuck Iwuji played a colorful and energetic Buckingham.

The figure of Lady Anne is characteristic both of Shakespeare’s work and the production’s treatment.  In Act I, sc. 2, beginning with a furious tirade that mounts into an even more heated partial stichomythy, she dubiously relents, as Richard disarms her by offering her what she claims she wants—his blood. While she remains sceptical, she has calmed rapidly. In ensuing scenes she repents of her yielding, even as Richard possesses her as his queen. Annabel Scholey, one of the British contingent, maintained a violent rage up to the scene’s turning point, then to release herself into an equally hot sexual attraction for the deformed murderer of his husband. However, it is really in the earlier, conflictual part of the exchange that Anne and Richard seem to be almost meant for each other in a relationship inspired by mutual loathing. Married couples can go on for years like that. Scholey was remarkable for the physical energy and intensity she brought to the part, but this also moved her to speak her verses in a crude, machine-gun like string of spat consonants which crushed the varied rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse underfoot. Her diction also suffered. Some of the others were able to give both expression and diction, so it’s not too much to ask. Shakespeare’s words can do more of the job than some actors seem to believe. This problem didn’t arise again in the play, and Scholey’s performance was more balanced and quite affecting in her exchange with Queen Margaret and Queen Elizabeth at the beginning of Act III. The director chose to bring her on again as an unwritten silent part in the following scene with Buckingham, Catesby, et. al., when Richard lays the groundwork for her murder in her actual presence. By now Anne is catatonic, unable to respond in any way to what goes on around her. Ms. Scholey was at her strongest in this scene, in which she neither moved nor made a sound.

Among the Americans, Chandler Williams, one of our more distinguished younger actors with an impressive record in New York and regionally, gave what I thought was an especially interesting and imaginative Clarence, which was similarly marred by moments of muddled prosody and diction. Clarence has some of the richest and most beautiful language in the play, and it can reach us without barking or moaning. Williams occasionally got so caught up in his character’s futile worrying and lamentation that he distorted the expressive rhythm of his lines, again suggesting that less can be more for an actor. This didn’t seem to be entirely of a part with his intriguing personal approach to his verse. His pronunciation hovered somewhere in mid-Atlantic, veering now more towards England and at other times towards America, giving him an interesting quasi-foreign sound. He established his Clarence from the beginning as a dissolute type, totally incapable of understanding. much less overcoming his situation.

The real glory of this production was the Royal women—Queen Margaret, played by the renowned character actress Gemma Jones, Queen Elizabeth, played by Haydn Gwynne, and the Duchess of York, played by an American, Maureen Anderman. The Duchess, as the mother of Richard, Edward IV, and Clarence, is closest to the source of the evil, since she gave birth to the monster herself and saw one son murder one of the others. Although she made a strong impression in Act II, Ms. Anderman came into her full scope in Act IV, in her scenes with the two queens. These three outstanding actresses seemed to have an exceptional rapport in working together, and their efforts as individuals and as an ensemble made Act IV the high point of the play. Their magnificent Act IV, sc. 4 stood out somewhat because it was the best acting of the evening, but this did not throw the play off track either, since the scene is a reflection on Richard and his evil deeds, which sets the character and his actions both in the past and outside of time, in the universal scheme of nature and human morals. In fact it took an important place in Mendes’ concept of the play, since he set up the scene abstractly, using the blank, full extent of his stage and its dramatic perspectival recession. In this, the three ladies brought to mind the three Norns in the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, and with the projected storm clouds racing by, almost as cosmic in scope. Gemma Jones, as the ragged and insane Queen Margaret, costumed as a bag lady, has haunted the proceedings since the beginning, gracing family gatherings with her raging imprecations, curses, and spells, accompanied by the clicking and scraping of the witch’s bones she carries in the pockets of her capacious overcoat. Here she makes her final appearance before returning to her native France in a kind of primeval lament—or rant—over the destruction of her family.

The most impressive performance of all, however, was Haydn Gwynne’s as Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s not quite comme-il-faut wife, who was never fully accepted by and was constantly at odds with the others. In Act I we meet her, bearing a notable resemblance to Wallis Simpson, bottling up her anxiety with a cocktail, as she deals with the family and Richard. Later, after the death of her two young sons in the Tower, her rage assumes mythical dignity, as she vents it together with the other women and in confronting Richard. Gwynne consistently kept her emotive expression in step with the verse and made it the servant of Shakespeare’s language, never screaming or distorting her lines, which, with her dark, throaty voice, never offended the ear. Her powerful work was a career-making performance, and I hope to see her again often in roles fully worthy of her outstanding abilities as a classical actress.

And then there’s Kevin Spacey’s Richard. As I mentioned above, this tragicomic villain hardly calls for subtlety, with his continuous asides to the audience and conniving soliloquies. Sir Laurence Olivier took understatement about as far as it can go in his wonderful film, resulting in elegance and polish rather than any kind of subtlety. Spacey goes in the opposite direction, playing his comic routines to the limit and beyond in the midst of Richard’s own inner rage, which can explode at the slightest scratch. At first I thought this was overdone, but I realized how this trait of Richard’s is written into the play. Richard’s power over others comes from his ability to deceive and manipulate them, to make them believe that he is a friend who will help them, but this does not mean that he is a master of self-control. All along his rise to power, Richard displays an explosive, violent temper, and this is essential to Spacey’s portrayal. Although it results in quite a lot of shouting at the expense of Shakespeare’s verse, it is interesting and vital in a performance that is notable for its energy.

Like the production as a whole, Spacey’s Richard has two aspects. His approach to Richard’s comic moments can be self-conscious and mannered, as if he were drawing attention to himself as Kevin Spacey. His repeated comic shticks and repeated use of his trademark moonface sometimes suggested that he felt insecure about holding his audience’s full attention, for which he had little reason, since groups of fans kept clapped wildly every time he finished a speech or wheeled around on his hobbled legs. On the other hand, Spacey has the ability to make himself disappear entirely, so that we become entirely absorbed in what Richard is saying and doing, and he almost seems real. Such is the power of the illusion Kevin Spacey can create. His Richard was clearly based on a close study of the text and showed a fundamental respect for Shakespeare’s invention. One could either say that his interpretation was free from theories and preconceptions, but one could also say that it lacked a firm outline. However, Richard’s deadliest weapon was his ability to be whatever people wanted him to be. His Richard is not a complete human being, and what there is of him is twisted and defective. Like a clinical sociopath, he has no center, and he feels no sympathy with others. While not always on the mark, Spacey’s Richard was a compelling and absorbing performance.

Many of my reservations may fade in my overall memory of the performance. I found the show thoroughly absorbing and learned from it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. I’ll miss the Bridge Project and the particular qualities of its productions. Even though its premise doesn’t convince me entirely and its execution seems flawed, the productions have been stimulating and enjoyable. Just as Carnegie Hall, with its annual succession of visiting orchestras, has become a home base for savoring their unique qualities, BAM’s Harvey Theatre is the site for outstanding theatrical performances from around the world, although almost all in English, and as much as I might be inclined to travel to the original theaters to immerse myself in their art, I cherish the opportunity to collect these experiences and compare them in a space close to home.


About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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