[This is a quick response to an extraordinary theater event. Look for a full review from Lily Janiak, SF Weekly's theater critic, in next week's issue. The show continues through October 29 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Mason). Call 888-746-1799.]
Judging from their excited chatter, there were theater-hounds and star-stalkers alike in the crush of people pressing into the Curran Theatre last night for San Francisco's first peek at Kevin Spacey in the Sam Mendes-directed Richard III that lit the London critics up like pinball machines. "Jesus himself couldn't get a ticket," one guy gushed. Another, apparently not trying to be funny, said something warm about Spacey's performance in American Beauty -- the last Mendes/Spacey collaboration -- and then asked, "Who's he playing in this?"
The buzz at intermission was excitable, too, enough to confirm that SHN has a serious hit on its hands. I heard much praise for Spacey's commanding performance, for Mendes' lively staging, for the show's elegant modern look. One over-it wag carped, "It's all a bit BTDT" -- then had to explain to his confused companion "Been There, Done That." -- so it wasn't unanimous. There's always someone who won't be happy unless the producers freshen up 400-year-old plays by setting them underwater or something.
Anyway, here's a quick look at some of the highlights of a production San Francisco will not soon forget.
1. Kevin Spacey Rises
Mendes denies Spacey a star's entrance, but he gives him a star's rise.
The show opens with Spacey, as the wretched Duke of Gloucester, seated and fuming: Peace has come to England, and this old dog can't stand it. From moment one, Spacey is a surprise, a throaty and charismatic villain whose barks and kvetching are a world away from the actor's understated film work. Still, like many Spacey characters, this Richard is a melancholic touched with genius, one for whom you will probably feel some tenderness, even as his ambition chokes England's boneyards with the corpses of men, women, and child.
Deep into his opening speech, this Richard hobbles to his feet, an act something like a collapsed building reassembling itself. Hunchbacked and stooping, the pain of each movement a flash of anger in his eyes, Spacey's Richard leans in on a cane, his left leg twisted and dead and augmented with mechanical apparatuses that look like they don't do anything but add to his hurting. Bent in on himself, Richard still stomps about his kingdom with brute speed and power, but with each step we see him try to swallow back his suffering -- and exult, a little, in how his carriage has not limited his effectiveness. It's a stirring physical characterization as effective as the hungry glide with which Spacey winged through LA Confidential; it's as chilling a depiction of evil as Spacey brought to Seven or The Usual Suspects, just overt rather than hiding in plain sight.
2. Great Actor, Greatest Poetry
From "Now is the winter of our discontent" (which Spacey declares boldly, flatly, with full disgust for that son of York) right on through to "My kingdom for a horse!" (by which time he has shouted his voice raw) any Richard III enjoys the advantage of great reams of the greatest poetry ever uttered in English. Much of it is the poetry of disgust and deformity, of child-murder, of the "poisonous, bunchbacked toad" who took England in blood despite being so ill-shaped and cruel that dogs "bark in madness" at the sight of him. Spacey and company are all impressively dour, and even the lines they expectorate are stamped with a horrible majesty.
3. The Two Absurd Wooing Scenes
This Richard relishes a challenge, which means that the early scene of impossible lovemaking makes a bit more sense than usual. Here, Richard determines to win the hand of the widow whose husband he recently had killed, and, for style, he does so at the worst possible moment: during a funeral procession for her recently murdered father in law, King Henry VI. (Guess who's responsible.)
Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne is a spitfire of rage, grief, and bone-deep madness. She has but one scene to ward off Richard's siege of advances, but that scene seems a full three-act drama in itself, one full with violent clinches and eroticized fury. She gives as good as she gets -- and then she succumbs.
Much later, after the resulting marriage has ceased to be advantageous, Richard raises his game: In a second long, brawling, horny scene, he entreats Queen Elizabeth to woo her own young daughter for him on his behalf. Haydn Gwynne's Elizabeth is wiser than Lady Anne, and her fighting is charged with a mother's fear. This makes the outcome all the more upsetting.