Give Kevin Spacey a gnarly gait and a hidden agenda, and ain’t we got fun? Spacey — now playing the title tyrant in Sam Mendes’ new Richard III, the final installment of the Bridge Project — seems like he’s been rehearsing all his life to slip into that infamous, hunchbacked silhouette. A facile and fanciful critic might even see licks of Richard in Verbal Kint, the similarly bent, famously unreliable narrator from The Usual Suspects. But that was then: This, as Mendes’ opening title card informs us, is NOW. We meet Richard splayed in a chair, the shrapnel of a victory party scattered around him, his bum leg cricked almost perpendicular to itself in a formidable jointed brace that’s straight from the V section of Villains 'R' Us (“Vader” through “Von Stroheim”). In the midst of his familiar opening imprecation (“Now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this son of York”), out pops an insectoid cane and up jumps Richard, his crabbed posture and speedy scuttling immediately suggestive of Class Arachnida: He practically leaps into the audience, and smiles ruefully when we flinch. Spacey’s physical re-creation of himself is utterly flawless, dangerously transfixing. He’s a species apart from every other being onstage. Part imp, part satyr, part maniac, he can barely hide his devil-child’s glee at his own eeeevil, even from the many soon-to-be victims unlucky enough to find themselves standing between him and the throne. He pragmatically conceals his fangs, but discretion does not really become him: This Richard is a homicidal show pony. Which more or less sums up everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong about this finely and feistily staged, cunningly lit and designed, yet strangely tetherless production.
“Why strew'st thou sugar on that bottled spider, whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?” wonders grief-mad former Queen Margaret (the bag-lady apparition of Gemma Jones). We’re right there with her: Can’t they see he’s malevolence itself? He wants them to. They won’t. What gives? Everyone’s taken in by Richard, but no one — not even this production’s director — seems to have much of an opinion on him. Nor does Mendes seem to have much of an opinion of the nature of power itself. The crown he’s fighting for is utterly abstract; the game he’s playing is just that, a game, and we chuckle at, then forget, every single murder Richard commissions. (When he skewers one victim’s severed head like a wet watermelon, our reaction is pure Grand Guignol amusement.) Even Richard’s most intimate allies feel like contractors, not confederates: Why they follow Richard and how his anti-charisma entrances them — these things are left in the gray. As for Richard’s famously perverse courtship of the grieving Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) — “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?”— it’s a complete non-starter. There are more barks than sparks, and the chemistry won’t kindle.
Of course, Richard is, by his own admission, no good with the ladies. So let’s look at his wingman, Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji), his reliable co-conspirator and the man closest to his black heart. Under Mendes’ expert staging, Spacey and Iwuji deliver a brilliant scene of what Newt Gingrich might call “pious nonsense”: Buckingham — having already salted the public with choice lies about the parentage of the King’s sons, Richard’s own doomed nephews — arranges for Richard to be “candidly” glimpsed in public prayer, davening between two bishops. He offers the crown; Richard staunchly refuses, then, under duress, accepts. Mendes plays it as a sort of reality-TV campaign commercial, as a camera finds Richard in the church, utterly shocked — shocked! — to be disturbed in the middle of his “holy exercise.” Iwuji and Spacey are never better than when they’re apart: Iwuji downstage, running the rally, Spacey off-stage and on-camera, floating above it all. United onstage, however, they never quite make sense. Richard has his machinations, and Buckingham eagerly takes part, but they’re not a team. This Richard doesn’t “do” teams, not even temporary ones. Once ensconced in the cozy purple of power, all those courtiers and flatterers and attendants make him claustrophobic. Spacey’s best moment of the night (and there are many candidates for that honor) comes as he settles onto the throne, smiles a child’s smile of cookie-jar contentment, and then, almost immediately, grows irritable and panicky. Who’s behind him? What’s next? But the more openly ferocious Spacey’s Richard grows, the less interesting he becomes. Spacey goes into full bellow for almost a solid hour, investing most of his nuance in his physical characterization: His introspective fifth-act monologue (“Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am: / Then fly. What, from myself?”) left me cold.
Thus, the glide path to Richard’s downfall at the hands of stolid, stalwart, soporific Henry Richmond (Darrow) is the most tedious part of the show. Mendes hasn’t laid the groundwork for the last leg of Richard’s journey to success and oblivion, because he hasn’t properly laid out what’s at stake. What’s the nature of the “war” that bookends this story? What is this “England” Richard schemes and scraps to rule, really? What are these things for the purposes of this directorial vision? A series of doors is the answer supplied by scenic designer Tom Piper. Black “X”s on each portal provide a rough body count. But a tally is not a concept, much less a kingdom. It’s just a game, and this show feels heavy on game, light on conviction. Intuitively, I have no idea what anyone in this show was fighting for, other than “to win.” (Perhaps that’s all too relevant to the present day.) In the end, only the luckless and increasingly childless women of the court — Richard’s own mother, the Duchess of York (Maureen Anderman), and Margaret, former Queen Elizabeth (the excellent Haydn Gwynne) whose sons were offed by Richard’s goons — can get through to Spacey’s antic Richard for even a second. A curse from mom barely slows him down, but Gwynne’s Elizabeth fares better. “What canst thou swear by now?” she says, pointing out that Richard’s total moral divestiture has left him with little in the way of tangible principles, either to embrace or violate. “The time to come” is Richard’s snarled answer, a perfect answer from the man who cannot abide the Now, who must leverage the future in order to survive. But Elizabeth has a riposte thorny enough to keep ontologists up at night: “Swear not by time to come; for that thou hast / Misused ere used, by time misused o'erpast.” Richard, in other words, is a kind of self-swallowing singularity: The moment of his full manifestation is also the moment of his utter collapse. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty apt way to describe this production.