With Kevin Spacey taking the lead, and Sam Mendes directing, you would rightly expect this 'Richard III' to be something rather special, and indeed it is. Modern dress and a setting that is more decaying warehouse than regal palace are key visual ingredients that provide the backdrop to this production. But Kevin Spacey's formidable performance is also part of that visual mix too. Not only does he sport the birth defect for which this character is best known, but he also bears the scars of war by wearing a leg calliper.
The story has fascinated audiences from Shakespeare's day. It is the tale of a time in England when war ravaged the country. The Wars of The Roses were a series of conflicts which broadly took place between 1455 and 1485. The protagonists were rival branches of the Plantagenets - the houses of York and Lancaster. When this play starts, peace has broken out and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Kevin Spacey) is determined to use the idle time to cause mischief. Well, that is putting it mildly, because he plans to murder his brother and anyone else who looks like spoiling his plan of obtaining the crown of England for himself.
Tom Piper's stark set captures the brutality of the times and the wars which must have left much of the country in ruins. But it also highlights the brutality of the central character who seems entirely at home in this decaying, monolithic structure built of iron girders and brick. Numerous doors line the walls and there's clever use of perspective so it seems like the building stretches back to infinity. Clouds are projected onto the brick walls, and projected captions divide the story into scenes according to the main protagonist in each one. At the start of the play, the word 'Now' is projected at the front of the stage, underlining the first word of the play and also cuing-in the murderous activities which are to come.
Kevin Spacey's Richard is not just a warrior. Above all, he's a master manipulator and a brilliantly devious politician with the foresight to be thinking dozens of moves ahead of his opponents. He is a cunning and totally unscrupulous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Family ties and loyalty count for nothing in Richard's book. But he's not only a political mastermind and ruthless fighter. He's a first-rate actor who can become almost anything and anyone in order to achieve his goals. There's a clever scene where he is supposedly praying in a chapel and his image is relayed via a huge video screen to the public who are being addressed and egged-on by his henchman, Buckingham. Richard coyly refuses the crown, in a child-like, self-deprecating way which is very funny when contrasted with Richard's true intentions and his means of achieving them.
There's no doubt that Kevin Spacey's performance is thoroughly impressive and hugely compelling. But he never invests the character with truly visceral, menacing evil. I always think of Richard as a man who could strike terror in someone with a simple look - but I never got that feeling here. That niggle aside, I still enjoyed Mr Spacey's performance and that of the rest of the excellent cast, made up of both UK and American actors. Gemma Jones is a fine Queen Margaret, more impoverished soothsayer than majestic ex-queen. Chandler Williams ably convinces as Richard's maligned bother, Clarence. Chuk Iwuji is Richard's eager accomplice, Buckingham, at least until Richard renege's on his promise to reward him for his loyalty. And the whole production is elegantly and cleverly orchestrated by Sam Mendes.
"Spacey's performance combines instinctive, stage-commanding authority with lovely, droll touches of drop-dead understatement...In addition to giving a modern spin to the black comedy of the political chicanery, Mendes deftly highlights the play's retributive structure. As each of her prophecies comes true and another victim bites the dust...Spine-tingling."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Sam Mendes has come up with a beautifully clear, coherent modern-dress production in which the protagonist becomes an autocratic archetype. But the real buzz and excitement stems from Kevin Spacey's powerful central performance. ."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Compellingly watchable though he [Kevin Spacey] is, however, you never feel as you do with the truly great Richard IIIs that Spacey is exposing something dark and dangerous that he has discovered within himself. He offers a brilliant display of bravura technique, but you never quite forget that you are watching a cunningly calculated performance... This is an exciting and richly entertaining production, but one that finally misses greatness by a whisker ."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The clarity of the direction is admirable, and Spacey delivers a commanding physical performance that's bruised, dark and wickedly subversive."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard