Kevin Spacey as Richard III (Joan Marcus)

How It’s New York:  Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is one of New York’s beloved institutions, founded in 1861, and at its present location since 1908, it’s the go-to place these days for international work,a s well as cinema, music, local performers and of course theatre.  And some of the performers in the Bridge Project are New York based.
How It’s Irish:  It’s English, but Shakespeare has deep roots in Irish theatre too.  Who can forget Frank McCourt’s description of Shakespeare to mashed potatoes– you can’t get enough.   Kevin Spacey is a wonder in this production which literally took my breath away (as in, at times I forgot to breathe).  Runs through March 4.

A version of this review first appeared in Irish Examiner USA.

Excerpt of video after the jump, too!

Spacey dazzles, changing midline from anger to deadpan comedy to cold control.

Tuesday January 24, 2012


Kevin Spacey and Annabel Scholey (Joan Marcus)

Gwen Orel Reviews The Bridge Project’s Richard II At BAM

The final image of Richard III at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), presented by the Bridge Project, starring Kevin Spacey, is so striking, that my companion and I looked at each other, our mouths hanging open.
I see a lot of theatre – this was the third show this weekend, the fifth last week.
Some of it was very very good (Gob Squad’s Kitchen at the Public; The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess).
But this heart-pounding production is in another category altogether.
It’s not just the best Richard I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best productions I’ve ever seen.
It’s running at BAM through March 4.
Richard III is the final production of the Bridge Project, which debuted in 2008.
It is a co-production of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Old Vic, and Neal Street Productions (I wrote about it for the Wall Street Journal here).  The Project uses actors from the UK, Ireland and the US, touring its shows around the world, and all were directed by Sam Mendes.
It’s a great way to leave us wanting more.

Spacey’s Richard is the Richard by which all other Richards will be judged.
He’s enraged (he does shout a lot) but there’s a part of him disappointed at how easy it all is.  He’s the most intelligent one in the room, which is boring, and his infirmities (traditional limp – with twisted left leg in a brace, cane and a big hump) make him both stand out and be overlooked.
He looks the audience in the eye, confiding in us.  When his own mother, the Duchess of York, played by a chilling Maureen Anderman, curses him, you can see shame fighting with bravado on his face.
He’s also funny and charismatic.  Shakespeare’s 1594 play was so popular in its time it had 7 separate Quarto and 2 Folio versions printed over 24 years.

The public loved this story about the end of the Wars of the Roses and the evil Duke of Gloucester who, having helped his brother Edward to the throne in a bloody civil war, proceeds to slaughter everybody in his own way to power: his brother George, Duke of Clarence; his nephews (the princes in the Tower); King Edward’s son Prince Edward; Prince Edward’s widow Anne (he marries her first); the brothers of King Edward’s widow Queen Elizabeth, and so on and so on.  He’s eventually defeated at Bosworth field by Richmond, who’s been hiding out in France – and a whole host of Englishmen who loathe him.nRichmond is crowned Henry VI, the first Tudor King.

Of course, much of this is propaganda – the play was performed for Tudor monarchs a century later, who wanted to hear that their right to the throne was, well, right.  The Richard III Society and many other scholars do not believe Richard was deformed, and it’s a fact that he and Anne were likely childhood sweethearts.  Richard reigned for just two years, 1483-1485, and died at Bosworth Field.
He instituted some very good laws including the Court of Requests, which allowed the poor to be heard in court. Never mind. What you see in front of you is what matters.

Mendes helps clarify the action by having titles projected on the back wall-“Clarence;” “King Edward;” “The Council.”  Before the play begins, the word “Now” is projected on the Harvey Theatre’s drop cloth. “Now” is the first word of the play, beginning Richard’s monologue

Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this sun of York

but the word also helps us bring the play into the present.
This is “now,” but “now” doesn’t have to mean 2012. It’s a kind of eternal present – and it’s just what Shakespeare did when he put his people in what was then modern dress.

If the production were just Spacey chewing the scenery gloriously, it would be good.
But director Sam Mendes brings to the table brilliant ideas, a zippy pace, clarity and a top-notch cast from both sides of the Atlantic.  Gemma Jones, like Spacey, astonishes and sears herself into the brain.Her eloquent, regal curses bring the shivers.

Chandler Williams and Kevin Spacey (Joan Marcus)

Annabel Scholey’s Lady Anne has fire and, later, a very British kind of vacancy in her despair.
Chuck Iwujui makes Buckingham, whom Richard calls “my other self,” a clever, smiling manager.
His eventual turn to the other side makes perfect sense.
Haydn Gwynne’s Queen Elizabeth displays cunning and dignity.
All of the lords are clearly defined; I noted Jack Ellis’ trusting Lord Hastings and Michael Rudko’s noble Lord Stanley.
Nathan Darrow’s Earl of Richmond is a callow youth – his speeches don’t rouse at first – but then that awkwardness seems a perfect challenge to Spacey’s slick verbal dexterity.nClarence’s murderers (Gary Powell, with a sparkly earring, and Jeremy Bobb) add a little humor. One is struck with conscience, one not.

Oh that word, “conscience.”
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!” Margaret says to Richard.
Murderers feel it.
And on his final night, even Richard laments, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”
What is this conscience – it’s more than fear of punishment.
Conscience is a metaphysical concept.

It’s part of what makes Shakesepeare’s drama more than just a thriller but a poetic masterpiece.
These actors are also in modern-ish dress – the uniforms have a vaguely 40s feel, and the women wear long dresses.  But it’s not really period – there is smart use of video, too, and at one point Spacey makes a Groucho Marx with cigar gesture.  A scene titled “The Citizens” shows a chorus of men in bowler hats and raincoats hanging on to an invisible subway strap, discussing the newspaper headlines of the latest death.
It all works.

The poetry never feels at odds with the images, but flows naturally out of people pushed to their limits.
Spacey dazzles, changing midline from anger to deadpan comedy to cold control.

Catherine Zuber’s clothes are luxurious and restrained (I’m too short, but I want Queen Elizabeth’s black robe with purple lining when the show is over). Mad Queen Margaret’s hair is distressed and dreadlocked, adding to her overall witchiness. Mendes has this Queen, Henry VI’s banished widow, not just an accused witch, but a real one, with bones she clicks to make things happen, and the power to be invisible.

Tom Piper’s spare set is severely raked, with a bleached wood floor and walls full of doors.
The constant threat of someone coming in just adds to the physical tension.  Paul Pryant’s lighting is shadowy and stark, and Jon Driswcoll’s projections include ominously moving clouds.

The film sequences include a newsreel of Edward and a hilarious sequence of Richard pretending to pray, mouthing how he does not want to be king.

At over three hours, the production could do with another intermission, and there was a scene or two that might have been more effective a little more toned down.

But the music and sound that really get the blood pumping.
There are live percussionists in the boxes by the stage, who underscore the action (Curtis Moore, who also coordinated and directed the music, is one; the other is Hugh Wilkinson).
Mark Bennet composed; Gareth Fry did the sound.
When Lady Anne sees that her father-in-law’s wounds bleed afresh in Richard’s presence, thus marking him as a murderer, (a belief still present in Porgy and Bess), there’s an eerie underscore.

And the onstage drumming, led by a downstage row of Richard’s victims, that leads to the battle of Bosworth Field, is like a marching band from Hell.
It’s terrifying, and it makes you want to cheer. You will. 

Richard III runs at the BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Tickets at 718-636-4100 or HERE.   
Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.