People don't last long in Richard III. Kings can scarcely enjoy a moment's happiness on their thrones before their lives become futile efforts at protecting their prize from real and imagined usurpers. It's language that has lasting power. It makes a coward out of a hired murderer. It convinces a widow to marry the man who killed her husband. And it curses — the strongest weapon in the play.
Director Sam Mendes knows that people wouldn't be lining up around the block for his production of Richard III, at the Curran now and headed around the world, if Kevin Spacey weren't the lead. But his approach neglects the language, the real star of Shakespeare's most popular history. This Richard III has a rollicking good time with its title character, surely the vilest villain in dramatic literature, but it also reduces some of the English language's most spectacular displays of rhetoric to filler.
In Spacey's rendering, Richard truly becomes a "bottled spider," a "poisonous bunch-backed toad." Opening the play surrounded by pizza boxes and beer, obsessively watching news clips about the king, he is already every bit the brother everyone wants to forget, the vermin crawling around the basement, the only one convinced of his greatness. But then when Spacey leaps out of his chair, revealing Richard's notorious hunchback and limp (even more pronounced than the one he used in The Usual Suspects), he becomes disgustingly inhuman, moving his appendages with an insect's twitchiness.
Spacey's delivery is best when Richard's arrogance and self-absorption verge on singsong. When he's deceiving — feigning love, virtue, or piety — he takes his performance too far, because he can. His Richard isn't just smug; he knows he's smug, he thinks it's funny, and he wants you to think so, too. But secretly, he's desperate for love and loyalty. The cruelties he breezes through — "whom I but lately widowed" sounds like one word — are loyalty tests that gradually become impossible to pass. Aside from a little too much barking of his lines and a few too many audience-pleasing contemporary inflections, it's a very fine performance, one that confirms Spacey's caliber.
The same cannot be said for Sam Mendes' direction. The two last collaborated on American Beauty, and the influence of cinema on Mendes' eye is not always positive. His sound effects are a little "dun dun dun," and there's even some gratuitous flying — of a dead body, no less.
The biggest problem with the direction, though, is when it feels wholly absent — i.e., when the actors are making movements so small it's as though they expect a camera to catch their every blink in close-up. This is especially problematic toward the end of the first act, when Richard orders one murder after another to clear his path to the throne; the story becomes so hard to follow that, despite the universal competence of the ensemble, you find yourself struggling to discern the good guys from the bad guys. More clearly defined staging, that kept things moving and that had actors other than Spacey use their bodies, would have been helpful — especially amid the monochromatic palette that defines the set, lights, and costumes.
Some inspired moments leave you wondering why the director couldn't have used his imagination more consistently. The coronation scene, in particular, unfolds just as Richard might fantasize the perfect moment in his life: The set parts to reveal a giant poster of the new king and the entire cast marches onstage to play an intense rhythm on hand drums, which Richard dances to. But it's also an apt crystallization of the production's limited focus; it's no wonder that it's depicted on the show's poster.