Alastair Campbell would surely have approved. The former spin doctor, who was in the audience for the opening night of Sam Mendes’ production, must have been nodding as Kevin Spacey’s Richard gave us an object lesson into how to snatch and keep power.
Spacey’s performance is mesmerising; right from the opening scene when he sits disconsolately in a chair, party hat askew while a newsreel detailing Edward's triumph plays in the background. I like the way that "Ilkley Moor Bar T’at" is used as fanfare music for the Yorkists – a nice touch that.
This is a portrait of a bitter man, poisoned with loathing for himself and the world around him but with a delight in black humour. His constant asides to the audience are exquisitely timed – Spacey would make a great stand-up comedian – but he’s also careful not to be too demonic. Richard commands a lot of loyalty from his fellow nobles in capturing power and Spacey’s duke is capable of laying on the charm.
He has some great support too. Annabel Scholey is a fine Lady Anne, appalled and fascinated by Richard in equal measure and Haydn Gwynne’s excellent Queen Elizabeth is the perfect foil in the long scene where Richard declares his desire for her daughter – a scene where Spacey displays all the complexities of the king’s character.
There's a tremendous performance from Chuk Iwuji as Buckingham. Richard describes him as “my other self” and Iwuji proves to be as charismatic as Richard in rousing support and just as deceitful in his double-dealing. Jack Ellis as a blunt, northern Hastings is also noteworthy. There are plaudits too for Paul Pyant’s atmospheric lighting, giving an almost expressionist sheen to the action.
And yet, not everything works; the text draws attention to Margaret's curse. It's too heavy-handed to have Gemma Jones' deposed queen hanging around at every death, keeping score as her enemies fall. Nor does the inference that supernatural help is needed for Richmond to defeat Richard really add anything. The backdrop, announcing every character's name is a bit unnecessary and the idea of using a video feed for certain scenes was an innovative one a few years back but is beginning to look hackneyed now.
Audiences this summer have the chance to compare two very different productions of this play with Propeller’s blood-soaked portrayal, currently at Hampstead Theatre, contrasting vividly to Mendes’ exercise in statecraft driven by Spacey’s towering performance. A nice choice for Londoners to have.