Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spacey the III

Don't think I haven't noticed that my posts involving Shakespeare are suspiciously popular.
All ye who intend to "borrow" this for your term papers, use quotation marks or relent!
In any case, this is a review of the production of Richard III currently at BAM, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by Sam Mendes.
Kevin Spacey is a great actor. Richard III is a great villain and William Shakespeare is the greatest writer that ever was. So how's the production? Good, but uneven. Mendes has conceived a very sparse production with contemporary overtones. The costumes are modern Elizabethan (and rather boring), the stage is mostly bare, surrounded by many doors symbolizing the many victims of this proto-mass murderer. For Richard is a political serial killer, reminiscent of a Stalin, or a Mao. Thirsty for power, he kills what he fears, and because he kills so much, he fears everybody, so he has to dispose of everybody.  Homicidal tyrants have existed since day one, but it takes Shakespeare to make one into a character that clearly defines a complete psychological space.
Richard is deformed, prematurely born; it is said of him that he had teeth before he had eyes. To hear him tell it at the beginning of the play, everybody's happily carousing in times of peace,
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up...
(Has anybody ever written so beautifully about ugliness?) Since Richard cannot carouse, he has to scheme. He is physically a monster, and perhaps because of the cruelty of nature and society towards him, he is cruel himself. Poor Richard lived long before political correctness and bleeding hearts (a phrase that comes from this play!). One can imagine the bullying he endured. The play hurls spectacular insults at him, but fortunately Shakespeare is not from the age of pitiful self-justification. He is not as cheap as to want us to feel sorry for the guy. He makes him human, and therefore one ends feeling a pathetic sort of pity for him. What a waste of intellect, what deformity of purpose, which is what one always thinks about people who use all their mental energy for destruction. Think Assad Jr. now in Syria, or Ghadaffi, or any totalitarian monster of our age. There is a wonderful soliloquy when Richard is finally visited by conscience, which expresses the psychic isolation and engorged ego of the sociopath:
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Excuse me while I plotz.  This profile could have been written, less adroitly perhaps, by one of those forensic psychologists at Quantico. Its modernity blows me away.  Everything is I with this man. He is alone and apart from human society. A classic sociopath.
Well, Spacey goes to town, emphasizing Richard's duplicity and his terrible need for attention. It is a powerful performance, a bit shticky, in my view, very Spacey-like, which is not bad, since he is the master of dripping sarcasm. My biggest problem with this characterization is that he screams like a maniac. Many times, the screaming obscures the words. This is unfortunate, because Richard is one of the most verbally compelling characters in all of Shakespeare. This is one Richard hell-bent on garnering attention, full of mercurial fury, but it would be more interesting if he would connive more quietly and let his fury seethe inside his crooked frame. As you saw above, Shakespeare goes to beautiful lengths to describe his physical weakness, which serves as a stunning contrast to his robust capacity for evil. It should surprise everyone at court that this pathetic cripple harbors such gigantic homicidal tendencies, but Spacey is not a wee man, nor is this a quiet performance. He wears a polio brace and has a crooked leg and a bent foot, the iconic hunchback, relies on a cane and is totally misshapen. As he ambles up and down the stage he looks suitably grotesque, but it would be far more chilling to see his power come, not from throwing tantrums, but from a powerful tsunami of a mind inside a shriveled frame. After more than three hours, the outbursts get annoying and lose effectiveness. I will confess, this reminded me of my Mom and Dad's dueling parenting techniques. Mom was a frequent hell-raiser, while Dad was a quiet seether. Guess which one sent me into paroxisms of fear? One look from my Dad's silent anger was enough to make me wither in my chair, whereas my Mom's operatic outbursts eventually caused my sisters and me to roll our eyes.
Less is always more.
Spacey shows off his verbal dexterity and riffs around with the rhythms interestingly and at breakneck speeds, if not always eloquently. Still, he has some incredible moments, as when, in a mediatic event reminiscent of the putrid piety of today's Republican candidates, he pretends to pray in church (holding a Bible as a prop, of course) as he orchestrates his usurpation of the throne. Here, he reminded me of Newt Gingrich. Richard has members of his clique actually beg him publicly to become king as he feigns modesty and surprise. This is done through a live video feed on a big screen so we can see what Spacey does best, which is to show us what he's thinking through the most minimal gestures. At one point, he coyly averts his eyes, but there is more than false modesty in this tiny act; there is a weariness which encompasses everything that has happened up to that point and everything that will happen next. Mendes equates Richard's appetite for power with the megalomaniac personality of a totalitarian dictator. It makes perfect sense for our day and age.
Spacey is valiantly over the top for the entire play, giving a physically generous, possibly quite painful, exhausting and unsparing performance that has him sweating buckets, and in a clever use of his real sweat, Richard is constantly wiping his brow, which adds a layer of sliminess to the character, sweaty like a Tricky Dick.
Alas, just as Richard's monstrous ego takes up all of the play's space, Spacey takes up all of the stage. Most of the actors are nowhere near his level. The men are mostly inconsequential. The women fare better, but except for Gemma Jones, excellent as Queen Margaret, and the actress who plays his poor mother, the rest of the actors are left in the dust, and this smacks of headliner vanity to me. Why are the two young princes Richard kills portrayed by young women? The horrifying shock of their murder is grossly diminished by this arbitrary piece of casting.
Still, for the most part, the production is visceral and bracing. Mendes has some cool visual ideas, particularly towards the end, when Richard and the good Richmond share a dream, sitting on opposite sides of a long table as all the spirits of the murdered appear to haunt one and inspire the other, and a fantastic coup de theatre when a finally dead Richard is hoisted up from a meat hanger, feet first, to dangle like a piece of butchery, himself reminiscent of all the blood he spilled.
So how is Richard human? We know he has suffered, he is unloved and worse, incapable of love himself. Shakespeare was too cool to change Richard's nature just to appease the audience. He shows how human nature is, not how it should be. There is something heroic in Richard's determination to stay true to himself, in his relentless quest for some sort of social redress. He has never known love, how would he change? I am I. He is pitiful for his ignorance of human restraint, for his incapacity for mercy. He knows what he is, and this must be so painful.

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