Richard II Critics Reviews

Spacey wins over critics at last

Kevin Spacey’s first Shakespearean performance in the UK has received positive reviews from the critics. The Hollywood actor launched his second season as artistic director of London’s Old Vic on Tuesday playing Richard II.

“This is the show we’ve been waiting for since Spacey took over at the Old Vic more than a year ago,” wrote the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer.

The Guardian’s critic, meanwhile, said the actor’s “fine performance confirms his Shakespearean credentials”.

A local power cut during the first act disrupted the show’s lighting and resulted in an extended interval. According to the Times’ reviewer, however, “it did nothing to detract from the power source called Spacey”.

“Spacey gives an eloquent answer to his critics,” wrote Michael Coveney in the Independent.

But the Daily Mail’s critic was less enthusiastic, calling the actor “the weakest thing” in Trevor Nunn’s “refreshing, funky” production.


Spacey was hailed as the saviour of the historic south London venue when he became its new chief in 2003. But his first season in charge was met with mixed reviews, that led some to question his appointment. Nunn’s production, however – which uses large video screens and modern dress to highlight the play’s contemporary relevance – appears to have won over the Oscar-winning actor’s critics.

“It is strong enough for us to feel confident about the future of Spacey’s regime and of our most venerable classic theatre,” wrote Benedict Nightingale in The Times.

“Spacey’s Armani-clad Richard received a great response from the first night audience,” said the BBC’s Neil Smith. “So did his British co-star Ben Miles, who played the usurper Bolingbroke. “There was some confusion over the power surge, but the general consensus was that it did not detract from the effectiveness of the production.”

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2005/10/05 10:21:07 GMT



Richard II
3 stars Old Vic, London
Michael Billington
Wednesday October 5, 2005

Irony of ironies. The first night of Richard II at the Old Vic was briefly affected by a local power-cut. But, whatever the odd technical glitch, there was a good deal more electricity on stage than at any time in Kevin Spacey’s low-voltage first season: more, though, I feel because of the actor himself than because of Trevor Nunn’s production.
Perceptions of the play have changed radically in recent years. For decades, Richard was viewed as the conscious verbal artist, tipsy with grief and homosexually inclined; a tradition kept alive only by Mark Rylance in a recent performance at Shakespeare’s Globe. But latterly the trend has been to politicise the play and see Richard and the usurping Bolingbroke as parallel rather than antithetical figures: two men who, although radically different in temperament, discover the solitude of kingship and the limitations of power.

To his credit, Nunn largely follows that line. This is an aggressively modern-dress production that sees the play in political terms and makes full use of TV screens, videos, microphones and machine-guns. But this raises as many questions as it answers. You wonder how Richard retains absolute power in an England of mobile phones and text messages. And, if this is some kind of oligarchical despotism, how come Julian Glover’s John of Gaunt is allowed to broadcast his subversive message about national decline on public TV? Even stranger is that Bolingbroke’s accession to power is greeted by Copland’s Fanfare For the Common Man when he has clearly staged a military coup.

But, even if the play wears modern-dress rather uneasily, Spacey’s fine performance confirms his Shakespearean credentials. He starts as a man who combines the empurpled trappings of power with a self-delighting irony. He greets Mowbray’s fierce protestations of his innocence with a deflating murmur and, having paid the briefest of tributes to John of Gaunt’s death, whimsically cries: “So much for that.”

It is in the great central scenes of Richard’s return to England after the Irish wars that Spacey really comes into his own. Often Richard’s speeches are treated as virtuoso arias of grief. Instead Spacey, having sentimentally kissed the English soil, flies into impotent rages at the discovery of Bolingbroke’s treachery. “Am I not king?” he barks as if to compensate for his collapsing power. By not openly begging for our pity, Spacey genuinely earns our compassion.

This is not your traditional Richard. Even in the famous deposition scene Spacey speaks “like a frantic man” exactly as the text prescribes. Used to the comfortable accoutrements of power, he seems sadly empty and desolate without them. And when he says “I have no name”, you realise this is a Richard who has no real identity when divorced from office. The result is a fascinating performance that makes you long to see Spacey’s Iago, Richard III and Hamlet.

For the rest there is a good Bolingbroke from Ben Miles. The tricky relationship between him and Oliver Cotton’s haught-insulting Northumberland is also firmly established. Even the rare comic moments come off well with Susan Tracy’s Duchess of York turning up at court in her motorcycle helmet to try to save the life of her treacherous son.
As a production, it is lively and energetic. But it still leaves me wondering what kind of England we are in. Nunn’s best achievement, however, is to have released the Shakespearean inside Kevin Spacey and shown that he has the kingly authority naturally to command the Old Vic stage.

· Until November 26. Box office: 0870 060 6628
The Guardian

Spacey’s Modern Monarch
Reviewed by Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard (5 October 2005)
Richard II
Old Vic
Dir: Trevor Nunn With Kevin Spacey, Ben Miles, Oliver Cotton, Julian Glover, Jack James, David Leon, Steven Miller, Iain Mitchell, Genevieve O’Reilly, Glyn Williams

You would need a heart of stone not to be stirred by Kevin Spacey, oozing pomp and circumstance, in the empty glitter of Trevor Nunn’s modish, modern dress production of Richard II.

Video screens flash images of coronation flag-wavers and irrelevant poll-tax rioters. Intrusive television cameras relay extracts from John of Gaunt’s death speech in a style recalling Nicholas Hytner’s more convincingly updated Henry V.

So there a sly Spacey stands, decked out in regal purple, face set in a grand design of haughtiness. You would never guess from the authentic Anglo-Saxon sound of him that film-star American rather than English is his first language. He glances at his golden self in a mirror, with a faint smirk of satisfaction, like some performer poised to make his entrance.

The challenging and provocative stimulus for Spacey’s Richard lies in the idea that Richard remains a man of parts, a temperamental actor-monarch lost in role-play, who never discovers his real self or how to reign.

The accusations of Julian Glover’s wheel-chaired, vehement Gaunt leave him raging. He wafts airily through the ritual of his beautifully staged coronation, to the accompaniment of genuflecting, scarlet-robed peers and Handel’s Zadoch The Priest, as if divinely blown to power and glory. He makes our own dear queen seem positively middle class in comparison.

Few modern Richards, though, have proved so irresistibly unsympathetic in power or downfall as Spacey. Sean Baker’s outraged Mowbray and Ben Miles’s unenergetic Bolingbroke, whose driving ambition never moves more dangerously than at a sedan chair’s speed, are banished with a malicious nonchalance.

Moments later the king happily parties with flatterers, among whom his favourite, Oliver Kieran-Jones’s blond Aumerle, pink shirt suggestively slit open to the waist, does not win anything more homoerotic than royal touches on the shoulder.

Despite the vitality of Spacey’s conception I could only muster faint flickers of sympathy for this flippant, ice-cold monarch of Albion. When hubris should give way to heartbreak, when Richard loses power, throne and balance of the mind, Spacey’s king cannot or refuses to become Shakespeare’s raw, racked ruin.

The actor misses out on self-pity, that speciality of Richard’s. He oscillates instead between rage and high-pitched, quavering shows of grief that ring hollow. The gorgeous crescendo of despair, in which he lays down the crown, peters out.

It sounds as if the loss of kingship caused him no more than a small pang. Even the humiliation of imprisonment finds Spacey strangely unruffled, insistent still upon role playing.

Nunn’s modernising gloss upon this distinctly medieval play, in which nobles rise up against a king, never strikes me as either justified or coherent.

Hildegard Bechtler’s sets, with their silver and wooden panels, exude a timeless atmosphere of parliamentary ceremonial: intrusive cameramen who film Bolingbroke and Gaunt, slithers of their speeches later replayed on giant TV screens, do not help to make any interesting points about the way in which politics have now become a kind of celebrity performance with soundbites.

It is Peter Eyre’s outstanding but old-style Duke of York, a melancholic dodderer torn between loyalty to king and peers, who best dramatises the play’s sense of a country poised on civil war’s verge.

The production finally sentimentalises Richard, the crown guiltily laid upon his coffin, but Spacey’s unlovely, unstable monarch merits no such posthumous sympathy.

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