This production of Richard III, perhaps not surprisingly given the two star names involved, is completely sold out. It pains me to report (and believe me there was pain involved in sitting through it) that this success is pretty thoroughly undeserved, and you should neither regret it if you didn't manage to secure a ticket, or rush hopefully for the returns queue.
This is the second time I have seen this play. The first time was as part of the RSC History Cycle at the Roundhouse in 2008. That experience was extraordinary, and one of the things I was curious to see was how this play would work when you did not have the experience of living through the history distilled in the previous seven plays. On one level, given the number of famous solo productions of Richard III it seemed odd to think that that could be an issue, on the other hand, so much of that past history seemed to me so central to the play when I saw it in the cycle it was hard to see how it would not be. My conclusion after this afternoon is that yes, it is a problem, and therefore you have to do something about it.
Sam Mendes does do something about it. He pretends that it isn't really there. The text of Richard III is filled with references to murders, betrayals, crimes committed by the surviving protagonists prior to the rise of the curtain. Yet for most of this show these are pretty empty words – the production gives us no sense of who those victims were, why the survivors behaved as they did. Their emotions consequently lack punch because the ghosts are far too ghostly. Mendes perhaps thought that too much bringing out of the back story might confuse his audience – this is certainly implied by his feeling the need to keep projecting the names of key protagonists in particular scenes onto the set – as if we can't possibly work out who any of them are for ourselves. If the problem stopped there it might be okay, but there is a lack of character to virtually all the performances (and this is despite the presence of some usually excellent performers in the company including Haydn Gwynne and Chuk Iwuji). Regular readers will know that one of my biggest bugbears is a failure to engage my emotions and this happened pretty completely in this performance.
But much the biggest problem is the lack of a sense of crisis. This play is about a political order crumbling with ever increasing rapidity towards utter chaos. Murders and death happen in almost every scene but there is a desperate lack of a sense of violence or threat. The design doesn't help here either. The production is stuck somewhere between traditional and modern, all the men (except Richard) are in suits, but two of them are allowed swords – it speaks volumes that after the murder of Clarence the only other piece of violence in the whole thing is Richard's duel with Richmond by which time the play is practically over. People die frequently, obviously, but this either happens off stage or by somebody else passing a hand across their eyes and turning a light out. Instead of real blood and action, Mendes substitutes drumming. I kid you not. Periodically almost the entire cast appears on stage with drums round their necks as if they were preparing for some kind of parade. It's very loud, the rhythm is not unpleasing, but the effect is all wrong.
All this might have been obviated if Kevin Spacey's Richard III were compelling. It isn't. Spacey's main idea (apart from a few knowing asides to the audience which garner some laughter) appears to be to shout, and keep on shouting (virtually everybody else in the production does this too, mind you). Neither Spacey nor Mendes seem to have any idea what they are trying to do with the character. I never believed in his ability to get all these people to act as he wishes them to – something which Jonathan Slinger in the RSC cycle put across superbly. Perhaps most seriously I just never felt threatened by him. You need something sinister and disturbing in him – this after all is a man who commits ruthless murder after ruthless murder – but somehow here these are just things that seem to happen, Spacey's Richard has nominally caused them to do so, but that general sense of a cast of cyphers, the lack of violence, and Spacey's shortcomings contrive to make them rather empty.
At the end the audience roared with approval. Critics too have given the production good notices. But we at Where's Runnicles are never afraid to buck the critical trend. From my seat in the gods this was a dull, disappointing afternoon.