One sweep of the eye easily took in the white, wooden floors and doors lining each side of the stage. This focused attention on a man sitting in a chair in the middle of the floor. Above his head, a plain and unadorned picture frame hung, appearing as an inanimate piece of scenery. A sudden noise broke the stillness. The frame sprang to life with a video of a man dressed in a military uniform, clearly of a high rank. Abruptly the seated man produced a remote, paused the video, and spoke: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” And so Richard identified himself.
An understated use of basic furniture, mainly chairs and doors, expressed things that a billion-dollar set could not. The only other effect used were faint blue light, which signaled the presence of the supernatural, casting pale, inhuman shadow on the stage. The lights also came up each time a major character was killed, and ex-queen Margaret appeared, the messenger of doom, and drew a chalk X on one of the doors that around the stage.
Less worked as more because the layout left everything, save the voices, up to the imagination. Rather than painting a specific picture, the director handed each audience member a blank canvas and told them to draw what came to mind, making each individual experience unique. For me the set was first a marble hall, full of palatial ornaments and nobles, and then a barren wasteland, full of bloody soldiers. But that individual image was only in my mind.
Spacey made Richard a kind of comedian, always mouthing insults to the audience when his enemies spoke to him. Speaking or gesturing to the audience helped fill the barren stage. However, though he often mouthed or spoke out of character, he also played all aspects of the social chameleon that is the hunch-backed politician.
He morphed to his surroundings; each time a different character entered the stage, he changed his personality ever so slightly, but yet so fluently that it seemed almost untraceable. He would accent certain syllables to sound more proper in front of the king, or drag out his words just a little when trying to seduce a woman, so that she hung on every word. He even managed to shape his physical appearance, changing his posture, though he could not abandon his disability. He strode around for the entire play, often running, always his leg twisted sideways at an awkward angle.
Spacey was surrounded by a strong supporting cast. From the shine of his shoes to the perfectly folded pocket-square in his suit jacket, his second in command, Buckingham, was perfectly kempt and restrained. This attire gave him the precise, clean-cut look a man who knows exactly when to say what. His diction mirrored his image, impeccable down to the last syllable. At first glance, he seemed almost like a holy man, with a black suit and royal purple shirt. But then, as his character was revealed, he a flashed his true colors, unfolding his dark plans to control the kingdom with Richard. However in the second half, his shirt was changed to white, as if cleansed of blood. This was correlated with the fact that he was trying to wash his hands of the treason he and Richard had committed.
Queen Margaret also made a lasting impression, holding the stage like no one else in the cast, even when she didn’t speak. Her curses rang in each ear drum like the deep echo of an enormous bell, as if calling forth beings from a different world.
Little was cut from the production, which explained the full story behind many scenes that are confusing when the play is shortened. This also brings out many political aspects of the text, and each one further complicates Richard’s character. Rather than just act as a psychopath, he has to change his voice and body language repeatedly. He is forced to use every shred of energy to project the deep, multidimensional layers. Spacey’s portrayal of the infamous cripple also becomes twice as taxing; on top of that, he performs six nights a week, a full play and walking with a severe, though artificial, limp. Once his nephew actually jumped on his back, and, still walking with a limp, he stumbled, turned, and then smiled and laughed, all in the space of 10 seconds.
His performance headlines director Sam Mendes’s final production in his series The Bridge Project. The energy and life of the production, as well as the chance to see an uncut version of Shakespeare’s most complex villain make this production one to remember.