To Kevin Spacey, the role of Richard III must seem irresistible. After all, Shakespeare’s hunchbacked antihero, who plots and kills his way to the English crown, has many of the traits the star has portrayed repeatedly on film and stage: He’s physically challenged, hyperarticulate, shrewd, and more than a little bit wicked. In director Sam Mendes’ uneven modern-dress revival of Richard III, which runs through March 4 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the actor plays a kind of über-Spacey. It’s an old-fashioned star turn with undeniable showmanship. Subtlety, however, is in short supply.
Mendes’ three-and-a-half-hour production boasts some distinctive contemporary touches: The banished ex-queen Margaret (an affecting Gemma Jones) dresses like a prophetic bag lady; Edward IV’s fractious court don false smiles to make nice for a photographer; video screens depict offstage action (like Richard pretending to pray so he can seem to be reluctant to accept the crown); the nobleman Hastings’ severed head is delivered, Se7en-style, in a bloodstained brown box. But there’s a kitchen-sink quality to the accumulation of theatrical devices, many of which are introduced only to be quickly abandoned. (In the first act, Margaret appears whenever a character is killed, marking an X on one of the many doors on stage — but don’t expect the ghosts of Richard’s victims to appear to him in a Bardic version of bedroom farce; the imagery is dropped in act 2.)
Among the supporting players, Chuk Iwuji makes a strong impression as the aptly slick Duke of Buckingham, Jeremy Bobb is an amusingly reluctant hoodie-wearing murderer, and Haydn Gwynne fumes well as Queen Elizabeth. However, Annabel Scholey seems out of her depth in the tricky role of Lady Anne, who consents to marry Richard despite the fact that he has murdered both her father and her husband. It’s a crucial early scene that never fully convinces.
By now we’ve grown accustomed to Spacey’s catalog of creeps, from The Usual Suspects‘ Keyser Söze to Se7en‘s John Doe. So we laugh at his offhand line readings and smile knowingly at his insincere attempts at sincerity. But we never sense that Richard might have a legitimate beef for being shunted aside after almost single-handedly winning the War of the Roses for the House of York. At the show’s end, Spacey is even strung up by his feet like a side of beef — perhaps to keep the star from chomping further on Tom Piper’s spare set. By playing the role so broadly, Spacey denies Richard the full weight of tragedy. (Try to imagine two-faced Edmund as the lead of King Lear.) It can be fun to watch a villain get his comeuppance, of course, but it’s hard to feel much when this one does. B?
(Tickets: BAM.org or 718-636-4100)