Saturday, October 22, 2005
The Old Vic is probably London's most distinguished theatre. The artistic director is Kevin Spacey (who appeared in the film American Beauty fantasising about Mena Suvari in a bath of rose petals). The theatre's location is difficult to get to, in The Cut off Waterloo Road, south of Waterloo station (not really in "London" since it is south of the river).
My seat, which I paid £40 for (!), was in the Stalls, four seats into the row. All these seats were already occupied when I arrived, so I had to squeeze past to get to my place. The occupants of these intervening seats comprised (from the aisle inwards) a very elderly man in a wheelchair plus two female companions (both grey haired and aged about sixty - probably his daughters). This trio was very garrulous and solicitous of each other's welfare, a constant series of questions going backwards and forwards between them. The woman immediately on my left (the seat on my right was vacant) included me in all this kindness, asking if I was comfortable, whether I had a programme (the other female was just going to get some), whether I had seen the play before. She was a tall lean woman, and seemed to be dressed in a man's black suit, her grey curls topping off the ensemble in a hairstyle that resembled Harpo Marx. The theatre was surprisingly intimate, and as the audience gathered I looked up at the faded sub-baroque tiers and the big chandelier overhead (I would have liked to have taken photos, but a severe loud-speaker voice told me this was expressly prohibited). "Personally I don't think an American should be playing Shakespeare" said the kind, black-suited woman, eating peanuts from a plastic beaker. The lights faded and the play began.
Despite being a 16th century play set in the later middle ages, this was a modern production, with the cast dressed in Georgio Armani, and the sets based on contemporary, mostly political, backdrops. This could have been anachronistic but instead was very effective in demonstrating the relevance of Shakespeare's analysis of power politics (Will Hutton could have been a co-director). Visually the play was very very impressive.
Kevin Spacey as Richard II gave an incredible performance. Normally Shakespeare's Richard II is played as a rather weak, maudlin figure, with a tendency to self-pity, butKevin Spacey played him closer to the historical king, the royal will to power emanating from within the man and expressing itself as raging disbelief that anyone should doubt the authority of the oily sacerdotal royal Chrism. Despite all the centuries of intervening democracy, the thought came to my mind: here is a king one could follow.
The play explored the nature of monarchy and demonstrated the way in which the royal family fits into a particular philosophy of society (families coalesced into clans, clans coalesced into tribes, tribes coalesced into the nation with the royal family at the apex so that we are all theoretically related - in the words of the genealogist Horace Round: "we are all the sons of Edward III"). Kevin Spacey portrayed the king as a tribal chief, with royal totems and royal fetishes and royal rituals, linked into a bewildering network of cousinship. This society of cousins held firm only so long as the fundamental principle of primogeniture (that a son should inherit his father) was upheld (this was basically Shakespeare's central message).
The play also looked at manipulation of images - the ancient ceremonies of regal crown-wearings, processions and obeisances updated by video images (on big screens either side of the stage), photo-shoots, and embedded reporters in the battle scenes.
In the interval I stayed in my seat, as did the three people to my left. The woman with the black suit and curly grey hair presented me with a plastic beaker of white wine (very good despite being unchilled) and I was drawn into their discussion of the play (the elderly man in the wheelchair speaking approvingly of John of Gaunt's appearance in a wheelchair during his death-scene). The middle woman (straight grey hair) made the point that Kevin Spacey played the king with such passion that occasionally the diction was lost and some of the words were unintelligible (normally this would not matter, but Shakespeare being Shakespeare, every word is sacred!).
Although the play was very long, I hardly noticed the passing time, so compelling were the performances (Kevin Spacey as Richard II, Susan Tracey as the Duchess of York, Oliver Kieran-Jones as the Duke of Aumerle, Genevieve O'Reilly as Queen Isabel, Julian Glover as John of Gaunt, David Leon as Harry Percy). The speeches towards the end of the play can go on a bit, but even here Kevin Spacey seemed to give new insights ("I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief" - matching the sincerity of boxer Andy Minsker's tearful rendition in the sequence filmed by Bruce Weber). After seeing such a production who could say Shakespeare was boring!