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The battle of the Richard III's: Propeller vs Spacey

PAGE_9_SPACEY_618871s So this week I finally got to see the Old Vic production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey donning the hump.

Propeller Theatre Company's all-male, Victorian gothic/horror version, last month, with Richard Clothier playing the King as a comic yet nonetheless sinister murderer blew me away. I gave it five stars. So Spacey et al already had a big shoes to fill.

So did it impress?

The Old Vic's production is definitely more traditional, it's a longer version of play for a start, no nip and tuck with Shakespeare's text like Propeller.

Spacey plays directly to the audience as much as possible, looking individuals in the eye as he worked his way through the soliloquies rather than gazing out into the distance. Its a device that works really well giving the audience the uncomfortable feeling of complicity in his murderous schemes and making the smug revelling in his duplicity all the more amusing.

But like the contrasting costumes - Spacey in black much of the time, Clothier in red velvet - it is the latter's Richard which stands out as the more colourful portrayal. Clothier's felt the more fun but more dangerous for it.

There were some great choices by Sam Mendes who directed at the Old Vic. Having Queen Margaret as a cross between a bag lady and ghost delivering her curses while banging bones together and placing black crosses on the set's many doors as each prophecy comes true worked brilliantly. It threads nicely into the Bosworth Field scene where King Richard is visited by the ghosts of all his victims.

Mendes also draws on his film skills with Richard seen on a big screen via a 'live' link up during the scene where he fakes reluctance to take the crown. Spacey's skill in front of the camera coming to the fore and making the most of his extreme close up.

The live percussion throughout and battle scene led by a drumming ensemble added to the atmosphere but it couldn't cover up for some of the more languid moments particular as Propeller's version seemed to barely draw breath.

I also had a problem with some of the casting decisions. The two young Prince's were played by woman who were far too tall and not particularly youthful looking. Considering Propeller pulled off men in skirts for all the female characters without one bat of eyelid, this casting decision just screamed grown ups in school uniforms to me.

Now Propeller did play up the murders to the maximum with buckets of stage blood and I accept that that was probably exceptional but I was disappointed that there wasn't a little more invention from Mendes particularly as they serve as a visceral reminder of King Richard brutal ruthlessness and how dangerous he is.

Several of the characters were 'killed off' simply by having the executioner symbolically close their eyes by waving in front of the their faces (or worse, murdered off stage). It made what should be quite tense and horrific scenes feel quite lame.

There are elements of the Old Vic production that I'll never forget not least the 'dead' Richard's body being hoisted feet first above the stage by the conquering army but I'll remember Propeller's for it's brilliance and Clothier, for me, remains the Richard III to better.

It's getting four stars from me and runs at the Old Vic until 11 September before going on an international tour.


Now Poly wasn't a little bit dubious about this one, but I think it's a great connection. Kevin Spacey visited RADA to see some of the students perform one of which was Mr W. Afterwards he is quoted as saying to his casting director:

"Look, I know you’re not here to cast for the Old Vic, but I have to say that if I were to have a company at the Old Vic, this is the kind of actor that I’d want."

And then when Mr W was rehearsing to play Hamlet at the Old Vic (before Spacey was artistic director) the American actor interviewed him and his co-star Samantha Whittiker for the Guardian.

Now I think that is a good connection. But just to appease Poly, on our way out we saw the lovely Mr Samuel Barnett who was in Bright Star and His Dark Materials with Mr W.