Spacey and Mendes join forces for transatlantic production of Richard III

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Director Sam Mendes and actor Kevin Spacey have already tangled with Shakespeare's Richard III separately. Paul Taylor hears why the two Oscar-winners are coming together to explore the pitiless, power-mad, potentate in a landmark transatlantic production

Neither Kevin Spacey nor Sam Mendes is coming to Richard III for the first time for the eagerly anticipated Bridge Project production which opens next week at London's Old Vic. Mendes directed an earlier staging of Shakespeare's play, in 1992, for the RSC, with Simon Russell Beale. And a number of Spacey's key movie performances can be viewed as kind of apprenticeship for the role of the Machiavellian "crookback" who murders his way to the throne only disastrously to lose both cool and control once he attains it. But Spacey has also played "the deep-revolving, witty Buckingham", the anti-hero's supporter fooled, for a time, into believing that he's the "second self" of the manipulative monomaniac. This was to Al Pacino's King in the latter's Looking For Richard (1996), a film documentary studded with dramatised excerpts.

In the footage of his conversations with Pacino, and in the cast discussions, Spacey displays easily the sharpest grasp of how the cynical chicanery in the play – which is virtually a manual on how to execute a certain kind of coup d'état – relates to the dirty tricks of contemporary politics. And he's mesmerising in the great scene, just after the coronation, in which Buckingham, suing for his material reward, baulks at Richard's nudging, paranoid hint that he should arrange for the murder of the young Princes in the Tower, thus sealing his his precipitous fall from favour. The camera scrutinises Spacey's face as he kneels before his now enthroned accomplice. This actor's eyes have a natural propensity for signalling a lazy flirtation that looks simultaneously like veiled mockery – a sort of puppy dog/hyena combination of the"come hither" and the "drop dead". But when the light drains from the steady, venal coquetry of that stare, you are left with little flickers of chilling disdain as well as gathering fear. Both of these qualities (the pervy pertness and the trapped violence) mark him out as a natural successor to the crown of the leading role.

Their previous experience with the play can't be accused, however, of tempting Spacey or Mendes to approach this Richard III in the spirit of relatively relaxed and seasoned veterans. "I'm terrified," the two times Academy Award-winning Spacey told the audience at a Q & A in New York last December. "It's the second longest role I've ever played in a Shakespeare play. It's very exciting and very daunting and very terrifying. I think I already may have said that. Let me say that again. I'm terrified."

When I talked to Sam Mendes about his own plans for the production and his take on the role of Richard, he confirmed that there are particular additional pressures on the production. One of these can be summed up in two words: Laurence Olivier.

Since Spacey's appointment in 2003, he has been Artistic Director of the Old Vic. "He's running Olivier's own theatre," Mendes explains. "There's an Olivier dressing room and there are pictures of him everywhere. It's nearly 70 years since Olivier first played Richard [in 1944 when he led the Old Vic Company in its temporary home at what is now the Noël Coward Theatre] and it's nearly 60 years since the [1955] film, but it's entrenched in the popular imagination as though there were no other performance of the part."

With the creation of this dominating hero, Shakespeare gloriously outstripped Christopher Marlowe. In a prologue to The Jew of Malta, Marlowe feels the need to wheel on the figure of Machiavelli himself. But Shakespeare turns Richard, with his promise "to set the murderous Machiavel to school", into his own outrageously self-delighting master of ceremonies, the only character in the canon that is allowed to initiate a play with an audience-seducing soliloquy. Parody, with its battery of knowing winks, is the element in which this hero operates, and it is through parody that Olivier's Richard (with his trademark lank black locks, crooked nose, and twisted, limping physique) has continued to trigger widespread recognition.

The mad lunges between stentorian bark and arch purr were hilariously mimicked on the record where Peter Sellers impersonated him reciting the Beatles' song "A Hard Day's Night". The smug smirks and simpers to camera were aped by Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, the urbanely murderous, blackmailing PM in the television series To Play the King. In his book The Year of the King, Antony Sher revealed how he became obsessed with Olivier during the preparation for his celebrated portrayal of Richard as a "bottled spider" on crutches in Bill Alexander's 1984 production.

When he directed his film version of the play, Olivier – taking his blackly humorous cue from the lines "Why, I, in this great piping time of peace,/ Have no delight to pass away my time/ Unless to see my shadow" – enjoyed focusing on the sinister progress of Richard's hulking, misshapen silhouette while it, say, follows Lady Anne to her bedroom after his diabolical seduction of her. As one of the actor's direct successors at the Old Vic, Spacey is in a prime position to know how long a shadow that performance continues to cast. And there's the further historical twist which Mendes points out: this new production – which marks the final season of the three-year transatlantic Bridge Project and its ensemble of English and American actors – will, on the international tour, be "the first Old Vic production to visit Australia since Olivier took his Richard III there in 1948".

Mendes was 26 when he directed his first Richard III. He was already a star in the theatrical firmament but still some seven years from American Beauty, the extraordinarily successful movie debut that garnered Oscars for himself and his current Richard.

"It was a small-scale touring production for the RSC, with just 13 actors. Simon [Russell Beale] and I were just starting out together and it was a kind of sketch or vivid caricature that suited Simon at that stage of his career." The director then brings up my review of the production, which began: "With his close-cropped hair, bulbous physique and hump, Simon Russell Beale's Richard III looks like the unhappy result of a one-night stand between Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein." This comment is often lobbed at the actor and I am always surprised that he does not point out a fundamental distinction: I made the remark about his Richard, not about him.

But Mendes argues that Russell Beale, "because he feels marginalised by his looks, always understood the psychology of Richard III and the all other characters he has played – Iago, Vanya, Malvolio etc – who do not think that they have been invited to the party and smart at the terrible injustice of it. It breeds fury, which Simon is good at covering up; ambition, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency".

Richard is at the extreme pathological end of the spectrum of people who overcompensate for their feelings of inferiority. Most productions, including this new one by Mendes, incorporate material from the character's earlier appearances as one of the Duke of York's three sons in the third part of Henry VI. Lines such as, "Then since the heavens have shap'd my body/ Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it", helped furnish Freud with his theory that some deformed patients, believing they have suffered and renounced enough, demand to be treated as exempt from all the laws governing the rest of us.

Spacey, argues Mendes, "may be a different kind of actor from Simon technically, but there's a similar sense of someone who didn't look like a conventional leading man and resented having had to climb in through the back door in character parts". In the way he performs Richard, the director reveals, Spacey "is accessing that part of himself that went into his roles in movies such as Se7en and The Usual Suspects – very dark, very scary, slightly unhinged and always three or four steps ahead of the audience in speed of thought and irony and their terrible, twisted humour."

In the latter neo-noir movie, Spacey won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his creepily spellbinding portrayal Roger "Verbal" Kint". A brutal whizz-kid posing as a leaky coward with a cerebral-palsy limp and an insolent, masochistic stare, Kint is like a diabolically droll, inverted descant on Richard III. And, in his own very different way, he shares with Shakespeare's character an understanding that blatant transparency is the best and most disingenuous hiding place of all.

At the start of his career, Spacey harboured designs on being a stand-up comic. It's an ambition he might now belatedly achieve, given that, as Mendes says, "there's a vaudevillian aspect to Richard – he's a loner whose chief relationship is with the audience". He recalls, with amusement, that, when they embarked on rehearsals, Spacey "asked me rather humbly, 'am I allowed to actually talk to them?'" His one previous Shakespeare performance at the Old Vic was as the eponymous hero in Trevor Nunn's modern-dress version of Richard II, a very different monarch who, in his lyrical soliloquies, does not leap out of the frame to buttonhole the punters. "But I see him caring more about the heart of the man more than about the audience," the director says.

The world has changed a good deal, politically, since the time of Mendes's first Richard III in 1992, when there was the deluded belief, in some quarters, that we had seen the "End of History". "Dictators seemed to be a distant memory back then – I remember talking to the cast about Idi Amin – whereas now they are on the front pages every day," he proclaims. "It feels like a remarkably short step from 'Now is the winter of our discontent' to the Arab spring". Gaddafi evidently fascinates him as an analogue to Richard: "The costumes, the facelifts – and that weird public appearance, after vanishing for two weeks, on the front of a lorry holding an umbrella over his head: a bizarre and unnerving front for a dark and violent regime".

His production has not been relocated to the Middle East. Adaptations of the story that have tried to make that shift, such as the RSC-commissioned Richard III: an Arab Tragedy by the Kuwaiti director Sulayman Al-Bassam, have tended to collapse into incoherence. But Mendes does promise the odd "overtone of Gaddafi and Mubarak".

Describing his staging as "modern, eclectic, ranging across the 20th and 21st centuries," he says that it will not be offering a systematic reinterpretation in the light of recent history, such as one was given by the Richard Eyre production 20 years ago at the National Theatre. This was the celebrated account that imagined an alternative England between the World Wars and a coup-that-might-have been, with an Oswald Mosley-like dictator ascending to power with his black-shirted bovver-boys though the complicity of a decadent, fascism-fancying ruling class. That production was remarkable for the balance it achieved between a detailed political context and the power of the central performance. Playing Richard as a ramrod-backed First World War Officer speaking in strangulated Sandhurst tones, Ian McKellen could hardly indulge in vaudevillian theatricality but, within the constraints, he was riveting. One-handedly manoeuvring a cigarette from its case and lighting it, he would recount his machinations to the audience with the guffawing self-congratulation of a Blimp relating a capital jest at his club: the more outrageous the hypocrisy, the more constipated and clipped were the vowels.

Mendes argues that Richard's progress should be "premeditated but not predetermined". There are productions that dwell so concentratedly on his existential predicament (as man without a soul beneath his repertoire of masks) and on his psychological problems (fierce maternal rejection) that the rest of the characters dwindle into bendy bit-players in a solipsist's fantasy of the ultimate rise and fall. A striking example of this would be Steven Pimlott's RSC staging in which David Troughton's bulky Mr Punch of Richard yearned, with Elephant Man-like pathos, for his unyielding mother's love and donned false identities to disguise the painful hollowness within himself.

But this reading was extraordinarily apolitical. At the end of the play, Richard is killed in combat by the idealised figure of Richmond, the future Henry VII and the grandfather of Elizabeth I. But the inner state of Richard took hefty precedence over the state of England in the Pimlott production. Babbling chunks of his earlier speeches like someone in the grip of a nervous breakdown, Troughton's Richard simply abdicated his role without a fight and sat at the edge of the stage where he greeted Richmond's stirring final speech with a sardonic slow handclap.

Of course, it is much easier to highlight how Richard is destiny's perverse instrument for establishing the Tudor dynasty if the play is delivered to an audience with all the accumulated weight of being the last piece in Shakespeare's first history tetralogy, as it was, with Jonathan Slinger in the title role, in Michael Boyd's recent RSC marathon. But Mendes's first assault on Richard III got round the problem with an incisive clarity. The almost ritual manner in which all of the prophetic curses of the court-stalking, vengeful Queen Margaret are fulfilled was registered by the simple but powerful way he had her stand aloft and re-intone the curse over the final speeches of the victims who, remaining on stage, gradually accumulated for a lurid dinner-party of ghosts on the eve of Bosworth Field.

Perhaps there will a development of that X-ray vision of the play's retributive structure in his new take, for he says that, while he usually starts from scratch when he revisits a play, here he has found his mind drawn again to similar preoccupations with this one. He talks about his ideas with great freshness and acuity. He's keen, for example, that this Richard's siblings should, at the start, treat him with genial condescension as their crippled kid brother and not as a potential force to be reckoned with, and he enlarges on how it's the spectacular, against-the-odds sexual victory over Lady Anne beside the coffin of the father-in-law whom he slew that fires the hero with satanic confidence.

Mendes is sensitive to the problems facing any actor playing Richard in the second half, where he has both to drive the play and to lose control, and to the frightening lack of spirituality in Richard as his identity crumbles into a scrambling schizophrenia. It should make for a thrilling combination of vivid change and continuity – with, playing the devilish master of ceremonies, a complex acting genius who can range the hump on Richard's back next to the chip on his own shoulder.

Richard III, The Old Vic, London SE1 (0844 871 7628, to 11 September

No beast so fierce: dastardly dicks

Laurence Olivier (Old Vic Company, 1944)

A brilliant, instantly defining portrayal that lunged, unnervingly, between campily erotic flirtation and demonic derangement. In the film version, Olivier wiped the floor with thespian rivals John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in a ruthless, Richard-like fashion.

Ramaz Chkhikvadze (seen in London, 1980)

With his huge head and bulging, heavy-lidded eyes, the riveting Ramaz Chkhikvadze unforgettably fleshed out the hunch-backed-toad imagery in this wild, Brechtian cartoon of a production by Russia's Rustaveli company.

Antony Sher (RSC, 1984-85)

In what was generally reckoned to be the most bravura performance of the role since Olivier's, Sher scuttled about on crutches as a "bottled spider" who nonetheless hypnotised with an aura of sado-masochistic eroticism.

Simon Russell Beale (RSC, 1992)

Dogs yapped at the approach of this satanic, morbidly touchy Humpty Dumpty. At his coronation, he tripped on his train, and the fury with which he refused help was a frightening hint of the insane isolation to come

Ian McKellen (NT, 1990, and on film)

Playing Richard as a Sandhurst-trained Mosley-ite fascist, McKellen brought the kind of subtlety one expected from an actor who has reached deep inside Shakespeare's more reflective villains, Macbeth and Iago.

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