A few years ago I saw and admired Kevin Spacey playing Richard II at the Old Vic, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn. Now, also at the Old Vic, I’ve seen him as Richard III, expertly directed by Sam Mendes. They were both fine performances, highly individual while showing great respect for the text. Every performance represents an accommodation between the way the role is written and both the physical and the mental qualities of the actor who plays it. The very fact that in 2005 it was Spacey playing Richard II conditioned to some degree the kind of interpretation that resulted. He is a man of substantial build, a heroic figure who would have to undergo extremes of physical transformation before he could offer the kind of interpretation that the more slightly built John Gielgud, Jeremy Irons, and most recently, at the Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatre, John Heffernan did. To this extent Spacey is more obviously suited to the role of Richard III than Richard II and his current interpretation bore this out.
From the beginning, he took the audience into his confidence, coming to the front of the stage just under the Old Vic’s handsome proscenium arch and addressing us directly in a way that made us complicit in his villainy. In his wooing of Lady Anne he was aggressively erotic, convincing us that she could be seduced as much by his physical appeal and her own lust as by his rhetoric. He switched from one mood to another in speedy transitions demonstrating the kind of actorish virtuosity that the character himself demands from Buckingham:
Come, cousin, canst thou not quake and change thy colour?
Murder thy breath in middle of a word?
And then again begin, and stop again,
As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror? (3.5.1-4)
He played with a fierce bodily and vocal energy that could sustain passion and bring it to a thrilling climax in the course of a scene. He communicated feeling with wordless facial expression and gesture as when, having crowned himself, and with his hapless queen sitting beside him in a profound trauma of depression, he paused for a few moments of wordless, smug self-satisfaction, grinning at us like a little boy who has got his way against all the odds. And, like such great actors as Edmund Kean, who, wrote William Hazlitt, died ‘like one drunk with wounds’, and Laurence Olivier, who expired on his back, like a great overturned black beetle, his legs jerking spasmodically until they collapsed in death, he brought the role to a devastating climax in a thrilling fight and a horrific death. Uniformed and bemedalled like a modern despot, after he had been dispatched by Richmond a butcher’s hook was attached to his feet and his body was hauled up for public display, dangling head downwards for several minutes in a climax that irresistibly recalled Olivier’s death as Coriolanus when he hung, as Kenneth Tynan wrote, ‘like the slaughtered Mussolini’ before being lowered slowly to the ground. It was an apocalyptic conclusion to a great performance, and it brought the audience to its feet. I’m sure I was not the only one there to think that Spacey would, and should, make a great Macbeth.