Despite its popularity, Richard III is far from being one of Shakespeare’s great plays—it is too long (in this production, three and a half hours) and the only meaty role is the eponymous one; I always sympathize with the actress playing Lady Anne, who must begin a scene berating Richard for the murder of her husband and end it his fiancé. Still, it is fun to watch the hunchback, to see him seduce and manipulate and then gleefully take us into his confidence. Like Marlowe’s Barabas, he is one of the few great villains of the theater who admits his immorality, apparently with few misgivings about those he hurts. Instead, he provides us with delightful insight into the ways in which he will exploit others to reach the crown.
Kevin Spacey, one of our finest actors, plays Richard as he should be played: ferociously and histrionically, with no regard for realism. His performance is supremely athletic—he limps across the stage with stunning speed, roaring out his lines and wagging his eyebrows like a vulpine Groucho Marx. I have never seen an actor have so much fun onstage, and the feeling is infectious; the night I attended, applause followed nearly every scene for the first hour or so. He unapologetically combines the highbrow with the low, appearing in a purple, paper birthday crown for his opening monologue and punctuating several of his lines with a penny whistle. In contrast, the cast who surrounds him plays their parts as human beings, which effectively highlights his manic cartoonishness; they aren’t so much acting as they are providing props for Mr. Spacey.
Still, by the second half, fatigue begins to hit. This is no one’s fault but the Bard’s—or perhaps director Sam Mendes, who has too respectfully left Richard more or less uncut. The play is ultimately monotonous (imagine Iago doing a one-man show) and by the time we leave the theater, we are satiated but stuffed, like after a meal that tastes great but leaves us exhausted.