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October 07, 2005

Douglas Murray goes to see the first night of Kevin Spacey's Richard II at the Old Vic

Posted by Douglas Murray

William Shakespeare's Richard II
directed by Trevor Nunn, Kevin Spacey as Richard II
Old Vic, London
4th October - 26th November 2005

Douglas Murray, the author of Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas and of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, goes to see the first night of Kevin Spacey's Richard II at the Old Vic.

Kevin Spacey's first Shakespearean outing in London got off to a bad start - not just because early sound and light gremlins put the opening night on tenter-hooks, but because this high-expectation production opened with the most dispiriting cliché I can imagine. Five minutes were taken up at the opening – in a play with three hours to go - with the King being robed and then walking round the stage to the accompaniment of Zadok the Priest. "Aha!" we think, "this must be the King".

I was only convinced this ham-fisted opener was not the product of my day-weary imagination when it became obvious that the music for the whole production had been chosen by someone with only a passing acquaintance with good music. Thus Bolingbroke got (inappropriately enough, if given more than a moment's thought) Fanfare for the Common Man. And when Richard dies (not, I hope, to give the plot away) his funeral was accompanied by Arvo Part's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten – a lovely piece, certainly, but also now the sound-man's tool of choice on nearly all television programmes wishing to convey "sad atmosphere". The technical side of the play all-but drowned in such clichés, and it is just confusing that a director of Trevor Nunn's expertise could have copiously reproduced such tired tricks.

But these weaknesses were not limited to the sound-booth (though they were certainly mastered there). The production had a bemusing air of the amateur about it. This wasn't about opening night problems or under-rehearsal. Something much more general afflicts this disappointing production.

Not just the costumes, but many of the "ideas" are reminiscent of countless university productions in which a director hoping to be noticed and thought inventive unwittingly reproduces tricks which any experienced theatre-goer has seen a hundred times before. So gimmicks and jokes are brought into the action to gee it – and us - along.

And it's not that having "camera crews", video-screens and fashion-shoots on stage to fill up the action is always a bad idea, though it's certainly an idea that comes into quite enough productions. What is irksome about it is that it gives us in the audience a sense of questioning unease about the director's attitude to the play as a whole. Do they not trust Shakespeare to keep us amused? Evidence and popular opinion would seem to signal that he can get by without them.

Did the obligatory "nightclub scene" at the beginning give us anything? Personally I found it slightly embarrassing seeing Spacey and co. mock-clubbing on stage. And none of the school-aged people in the audience seemed wowed or impressed by the "relevance" this gave the play. Rather obviously, if you want to make a play seem "relevant" in the way this implies, you have a stumbling block in the fact that it's a play about an absolute monarch, spoken in verse. And when the absurdly good-looking (and not good enough at acting) Duke of Aumerle appeared back at his parents' place in a biking jacket (which his mother later woefully donned for laughs) did the laughter of the audience enhance or subtract from the bitter action unwinding in the hands of Shakespeare?

This is saddening, because the goodwill of the audience is clearly there. Most theatre-going Londoners outside of the press would dearly love the Old Vic to be the venue of choice for accessible and world-class performances of classic and modern plays. Walking past the wonderful photos of Gielgud, Olivier and Guinness on the way into this production, I did not think "the best is all behind", but rather reflected how nice it is that something approaching those standards is still going on. And it is - just not in this production.

Spacey's verse-speaking is irritatingly variable. Capable of moments of sublimity, at other times his voice not only slips into American inflections, but climbs to a high strangulated whine from which, once arrived at, he cannot dismount. Whole lines of miraculous verse get lost in a petulant monotony which though in keeping with the less sympathetic aspects of Richard's character do no justice to the texture and vacillations of the man - all of which are there to be brought out in the poetry.

But York is wonderful and so is John of Gaunt (though the effect of his great speech is lessened, rather than enhanced, by video-repeats: I'm sure audiences are capable of absorbing some speeches, even those half as famous as this one). The parting scene between the King and Queen at the opening of Act V brought me up short with its power and tenderness, and in his dying throes Spacey achieved some of the heights we want him to achieve.

But perhaps, after all, Richard II is just not a star-vehicle. It is too much about weakness, and audiences may understandably find it hard to discern what is somebody acting weak, and what is simply weak acting. That said, the production will almost certainly grow as the run goes on, and if the crass idiocies of the production can be removed it might yet become memorable.

For despite the ditches and hurdles they put in our way, the core of this play cannot be hidden. There are few opportunities to learn as much, in such a short space of time, about the qualities needed in Kings and tyrants, or the tiny chinks in a character which, when magnified by power, bring ruin to a man.

Douglas Murray is a bestselling author and freelance journalist. His forthcoming book - Neoconservatism: Why We Need It - will be published this autumn by the Social Affairs Unit.

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>Did the obligatory "nightclub scene" at the beginning give us anything?

Errrrrr... what is obligatory about it? Can you name ten productions of Richard II which include a "nightclub scene"?

LOL! @ "mock clubbing", by the way. I take it you mean "acting"? The rest of play isn't real either you know. Spacey only "mock died" at the end of the play; he's still alive. It's only acting. No need to get embarassed.

As for your comments about the production. Whilst reasonably literate I'm afraid they're bordering on the ridiculous. You appear to assume that all the people that will see this production are as knowledgeable as you think you are about Shakespeare. In fact, most of them will never have seen a Shakespeare play before. In any case, I wonder how well you really know the play. If you were truly familiar with Richard II, you would have noted the (surprising) aspects of this production that *are* original. But, you missed them, didn't you? Oh dear.

The truth is, the Old Vic is aiming to build a new audience. And it's doing very well, regularly bringing in a thousand people per night. The way you write, anyone would think that you could have done a better job of the production than Trevor Nunn and Kevin Spacey. It's quite amazing Sally Greene didn't ask you to be artistic director of her theatre or direct a production or two there isn't it?

Posted by: Simon at October 18, 2005 04:00 PM

What a nasty, ridiculous, bitchy, nullity of an ad hominem attack from Simon. Any fule no what "mock dancing" means - the toe-curling attempt to replicate groovy dancing on stage. As for the last sentence, it beggars belief that anyone over about fourteen could seriously mean this as a comment.

(apologies, Simon, if you are in fact aged thirteen)

Posted by: jim mcqueen at October 20, 2005 12:11 AM
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