Critic Steve Vineberg has among his many gifts a great skill at bringing readers a clear and precise understanding of acting, of what makes a good performance or a bad one. A perfect example from last summer is a piece he wrote on Kevin Spacey and Richard Clothier playing two radically different Richard IIIs in London.
Richard III is perhaps the only play Shakespeare ever wrote that functions solely as a star vehicle. Richard plots to obtain the throne; once he’s got it, about halfway through the play, he plots to secure it; and he resorts directly to the most direct method – murder. With the exception of his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (whose brother and sons he kills), and the cursing, half-mad old Queen Margaret, the major supporting characters are all dupes who make the mistake of underestimating him and who pay the ultimate price for their bad judgment. (Lady Anne, whom he courts over the coffin of her father-in-law – whom he killed, as well as her husband – doesn’t exactly underestimate him, but she’s weak enough to walk into his trap with her eyes open. He marries her and then disposes of her when she no longer suits his purposes.) His male victims are merely foils for Richard, whose gleeful scheming, confided to the audience in the manner of a medieval Vice, is the play’s dramatic arc until the good Richmond gathers an army against him toward the end and Richard simply runs out of luck. Put another way, the forces of evil, as always in Shakespeare, eventually burn themselves out: the ghosts of Richard’s victims unite on the eve of battle to trouble his sleep and bless Richmond. The plot structure isn’t much different from Macbeth’s, but aside from a psychologically complex protagonist, that play has Lady Macbeth. It’s also compact, whereas Richard III drags on; Mendes’s production clocks in at three and a quarter hours, and it’s paced well. There’s not much to focus on besides Richard’s merry villainy.
|Kevin Spacey as Richard III|
|Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey|
|Richard Clothier as Richard III|
In most productions of the play Richard’s change in the second half is just a matter of his luck turning, but a smart modern-day director sees it as an opportunity for a psychological shift. Clothier’s Richard begins to fall apart after the deaths of the royal children. For this section of the plot Shakespeare wrote in a murderer, Tyrell, who has a remorseful soliloquy after he kills them. (In the Old Vic Richard, the king receives their bloodied nightgowns, though Tyrell pointedly reports that he smothered them. Now that’s a typical Sam Mendes touch – ostentatious and nonsensical.) Hall depicts him as a mute figure in a plastic mask (played by Wayne Cater), to distinguish his deed from the other killings Richard orders. And when Richard peeks behind the screen at his handiwork, for the first time he’s staggered by the horror he’s wrought. He loses his step and never regains it. In Clothier’s magnificent performance, that’s the beginning of Richard’s demise: we can chart it through his inability to bend Elizabeth to his will when he tells her he wants to marry her daughter, the visitation of the ghosts the night before his battle with the Earl of Richmond (Robert Hands), and of course his defeat on the field. Cunningly, Hall stages Richard’s death with comic understatement after all the gore we’ve seen: Richmond (costumed by Michael Pavelka in white, like the knight in a medieval adventure) cuts him off with a clean pistol shot. (Well, two: like any horror-movie monster, he stirs to life again and has to be exterminated a second time.) The moment is shocking and satisfying.
- originally published on July 25, 2011 in Critics at Large.