This ambitious production of Richard II marks both Kevin Spacey’s Shakespeare debut on the London stage and the start of his second season as artistic director at the Old Vic, after a first that was considered critically to be something of a damp squib.
No such accusations will, I’d imagine, be levelled at this production because, though far from perfect, it is never less than striking. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it opens in a dramatic fashion with Spacey making a very bling king, decked out in purple ermine and a whopping great crown. The chasm between the man on show and the off duty monarch is perhaps too overtly marked, his behind-closed-doors world being one of suited sycophants and blue-hued decadence.
This is a modern production in every sense. The characters are clad in smart suits and cameras and microphones trace their every move; at one point a flutter of Jeff Buckley crops up on the soundtrack. The contemporary parallels though, occasionally feel a bit forced. On one occasion political prisoners, masked and terrified, are forced to kneel in front of soldiers with machine guns. It’s an uncomfortable scene partly because it feels shoehorned in.
Hildegard Bechtler’s design is flawless, all muted browns and slate greys picked out with an occasional splash of pink or purple, and it makes excellent use of the Old Vic stage. The production also does some very clever things with video screens, CCTV and live and recorded imagery but there’s a sense of seen-it-before to some of the techniques. Nunn used video (though not quite in the same manner) in his production of The Woman In White and Nicholas Hytner’s production of Henry V at the National better equated Shakespeare’s words with modern warfare.
I am however skirting around the main issue here, because the key to the success of this production was always going to be Spacey himself. His showy turn in The Philadelphia Story was a let down to some but he’s operating on a different level here. He does an excellent job of conveying Richard’s initial arrogance; his rage and frustration as the world as he believes it to be slowly crumbles; his reduction to something approaching humility in his prison cell.
His anger is often palpable but his performance as a whole is restrained. Spacey can do snivelling and pitiable, has done so in his best film roles, but here he chooses to reign it in and his performance is stronger for it. His accent though, one can’t help noting, has a bemusing mid-Atlantic twang to it and he can’t keep the odd Spacey-ism from penetrating his speech.
The dashing Ben Miles makes for an agreeable layered Bolingbroke and he’s backed by an able ensemble. The comic scenes for the most part come off quite well, necessary in a play that passes the three hour mark. But, for all it does right, there is a niggling sense of style over substance in some aspects of the production. It’s hard to see past all the technical cleverness to ascertain what Nunn is really saying about This England.
Visually rich and very well acted, this may be a middling Richard but had Spacey made it his Old Vic debut, he would not have attracted nearly as much stick as he did with his earlier off-kilter season.