Richard II, Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture

Initially you might not think Nunn's production has been updated to the present day. It could be the Victorian era, for Spacey's Richard is caught in a kind of royal time warp as we see him preparing for a grand procession. Stepping slowly to the front of the stage - his eyes gazing ahead, impregnable as fortress walls - Spacey is ceremonially robed by his attendants in the full garb, the velvet and ermine cloak plus jewel-encrusted crown. Nunn's brilliant stroke is then to have this monarch turn his hands outwards, confidently expecting the orb and sceptre. From where we are sitting, that gesture tragically anticipates his whole doomed future, when he will be robbed of his power and feel devastating emptiness.

Modern grey suits slip into the frame in the next scene where Richard is ensconced on his dais, presiding over a judicial hearing, weighing up the mutual recriminations of his nobles. In Nunn's take, this has the cut and thrust of a courtroom-cum-parliamentary row. Miles and Sean Baker's Mowbray leap up from their opposing benches to argue, dispatch-box style. Richard keeps the house in order impressively, but then explodes with unexpected rage and, most unwisely, exiles Bolingbroke.

This fluid production is not only a study in power politics, but also a cynical look at manipulative public relations and at individuals and state institutions operating under surveillance. Huge video screens (thankfully without Nunn's usual computer graphics) flash up live footage of Spacey processing, interspersed with actual newsreels of political cavalcades. When Richard subsequently embarks on a war and seizes Bolingbroke's estate to pay for it, Julian Glover's outraged Gaunt makes his "This England" speech to camera like a patriotic political broadcast - only going increasingly off-message. That in turn leads to footage of rioting protestors in Whitehall. Then television journalists pop up, embedded with Bolingbroke's army leaders who, satirically, stop bickering when they're being filmed. Back in parliament, the oak-pannelled inner chambers of Hildegard Bechtler's superb set also come with CCTV screens, watching who's outside.

Now, one might well complain that Nunn has pilfered this concept from Nicholas Hytner's recent Henry V, but he pulls if off with great aplomb. Some anachronistic references do stick out, not least troops in the latest combat gear talking of ye olde English castles. However, Nunn successfully gets away with a host of suggested modern allusions, from a Princess Diana-style Queen Isabel at a photo-shoot to prisoner-execution videos.

There are some glitches in the acting too. The Garden scene, with Genevieve O'Reilly's Isabel, is notably underworked, but there's excellent support from Miles, Glover and Oliver Cotton, plus Peter Eyre's stalwart Duke of York. Spacey's English accent slips badly, but otherwise he puts in a riveting performance: balanced between arrogance and insecurity with subtle hints of camp, yet also with a really terrifying temper and great authority. A rare angle on Richard.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

Booking to 26 November, 0870 060 6628

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