Saturday, 10 December 2011

Spacey's Crookback: Not For An Age, But For All Time

A hint of Groucho, a touch of Tevye, a gathering aroma of Bruno Ganz's Hitler and just a soupcon, maybe, of Jack Benny, inform Kevin Spacey's lurching and grimacing Crookback but do not bruise or diminish the sinuous rock-ribbed verse, which Sam Mendes, the director, has allowed to remain the star turn of his Richard III, by William Shakespeare, now touring.
The setting, a stained grey hallway of many doors and a grey brick wall on which newsreel projections dance (a frail, bearded king, arriving; Chamberlain-era throngs, cheering) might be Barcelona 1936 or Sarejevo 1998, and many headshaven men talking into their sleeves in the foreground give us, in our day, what Shakespeare's hushed groundlings must have seen in theirs: a world very similar to their own, of half-remembered shabby suits and crumbly buildings, war medals and uniforms from their grandparents' time; and, of course, in blood-smattered black-humorous blank verse, bitterly brandished memories of the slaughters of which most kingdoms are made.
Performed uncut, the text reveals more large, lavish women's roles than any other tragedy: assassinations' widows and mothers mourning butchered sons and spouses like those of Chile's Disappeared; some weird rough Plantagenet chivalry having spared the women's lives, it seems, and let them run like shrill Cassandras through palace halls unguarded.
Of these, the half-mad Queen Margaret, widow of the mutilated Henry VI and mother of his mutilated son and heir, and murderess herself of the dynasty's much mourned kingmaker York, is the most unlikely palace guest, and poses for this director and all before him a near-insuperable problem of why she is not eftsoons beheaded or clapped in a padded cell -- which Olivier testily dealt with by excising her, bag and baggage, from his movie altogether.
Mendes has made her part ghost, part mad plaintiff, heard out with bored amusement by snide shrugging courtiers as Margaret Thatcher in her present mumbling dementia might be heard today; and he has added her as well to further scenes as vigilant prophetic witch overseeing the carnage her curses have brought on Crookback's kingdom supernaturally. In this role Gemma Jones, once the Duchess of Duke Street and lately Bridget Jones's tempestuous randy mother, delights as she did in Brook's Dream in and Bennett's Getting On in 1970 and 71, a wellbeloved legacy, much missed already, of better times.
A cast of twenty, more than Shakespeare's Globe afforded, beating ominous drums and interjecting from the audience, excel at every turn in Lancastrian, South London, Kentish and mid-Atlantic accents here mixed promiscuously and well. A black Buckingham is a bit of a surprise, more so when Richard calls him 'cousin' but, as a good and trusty servant betrayed by his colonising master, he fits the last African century quite well; but not, I would think, not Buckinghamshire...
No, no, no. No. I do not like it. In even an era of a Blanchett Bob Dylan and Richard II and a Nevin King Lear and Mark Antony ('I look forward,' I told the great lady, 'to your Antony and Cleopatra, co-starring Gerry Connolly'), two cousins must bear some resemblance to each other. Shall a black Desdemona, or female Falstaff, or dwarf Coriolanus, follow? I hope not. Though Mr Chuk Iwuji is an excellent plausible torn hob-nobber with manifest evil he is, as we used to say, ill-born, on the wrong side of the Buckingham blanket.
Maureen Anderman, Stephen Lee Anderson, Jeremy Bobb, Nathan Darrow, Jack Ellis, Haydn Gwynne, Isaiah Johnson, Andrew Long, Howard W Overshown, Simon Lee Phillips, Gary Powell, Michael Ridko, Annabel Scholey, Gavin Stenhouse, Hannah Stokely and Chandler Williams excel in their many worrying roles, including two infant princes who speak in unison, and a Duke of Clarence who drowns in a butt of Malmsey in real time right there before our eyes, giving beef and marrow and poignancy to walk-on characters oft played heretofore as mere nodding muppets. Katherine Manners is particularly good as King Edward's tall bony widow Elizabeth, out-hollering Spacey through a twelve-minute scene of repetitive unabashed hortation and shrieked blood libel that might, just might, have been cut down a bit; it's already 11 pm, after all, and some of us have elderly bladders. And yet, and yet ...
Spacey's lumbering, smirking Richard is as fresh and pungent in its impact as Olivier's must have been on that first night in 1945. But unlike Lord Larry he flaunts no vocal tricks nor pirhouettes. He plays the dialogue as dialogue, the monologue as human speech, with an unaugmented naturalism that startles with its directness and modern, everyday cadence. Occasionally he pulls a face, or raises a crippled languid hand satirically, or mugs a gasp or eye-roll at his own perverse duplicity, but this is what the role demands. This is Richard as written, the Sir Les Patterson of his day. There are no bolt-of-lightning moments till the very last, wherein he hangs feet up like a slaughtered hog, or Mussolini, as Larry did as Coriolanus in 1957, bleeding and twisting on a hook.
But his triumph, and it is an enormous one, and the standing ovation true earned as few in our time, is built up line by line within the meaning of what is said, and hinted, and thought; and when, after three hours lurching and smiling and wooing and roaring his lungs to shreds, he goes into a punishing sword-fight, steel against steel, with fingers and foreheads at risk, he climaxes at infarct's throbbing frontier a physical marathon that would have pole-axed most Olympians (or, more aptly in this case, Paralympians), and does it sometimes twice a day.
I give him best, and wish him well, good health and survival. Bell, McKellen, Olivier, Pacino have not come near him. This is a Richard Crookback for the ages, and should be preserved.


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