After an opening season in charge of the Old Vic theatre in London, where he appeared in two productions as well as directing one, Spacey's position among British theatrical royalty was in need, perhaps, of bolstering.
And support he certainly got. Though far short of the raves that might have been expected of his long-awaited Shakespearean debut in Britain, the production elicited warm praise, albeit with caveats, in the first, hurried conclusions of the critics. Some queried his interpretation of the hubristic monarch who loses everything - his crown, his dignity, eventually his life - to the aggrieved Bolingbroke, but they also praised the electricity on stage on Tuesday night.
"Last night a power surge in SE1 upset the stage lighting and caused a delay," noted Benedict Nightingale in The Times. "It did nothing to detract from the power source called Spacey." The Independent's Michael Coveney believed it was not among the greatest productions such as John Barton's for the Royal Shakespeare Company in which Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated in the lead roles.
Sheridan Morley, in the Daily Express thought Spacey lacked "the sonorous poetic majesty of one of the old British actor knights like Gielgud". Nicholas de Jongh in the London Evening Standard admitted he could muster only faint sympathy for "this flippant ice-cold monarch of Albion", adding: "When hubris should give way to heartbreak, when Richard loses power, throne and balance of the mind, Spacey's king cannot or refuses to become Shakespeare's raw, racked ruin. The actor misses self-pity, that speciality of Richard's. He oscillates instead between rage and high-pitched, quavering shows of grief that ring hollow."
Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph said: "At present, Spacey seems far stronger at conveying Richard's haughty grandeur and petulant temper-tantrums than he is at getting to the heart of the poetry, or the man. There is no mistaking his charisma, or his ability to turn the mood on a sixpence so that courtly formality suddenly gives way to either sardonic wit or a terrifying menace. But his English accent sometimes seemed strained and he has a tendency to bellow the often exquisitely lachrymose verse."
To Spacey's benefit, his supporting cast, led by a cool and commanding Ben Miles (best-known from the TV comedy Coupling) as Bolingbroke, were praised almost without exception.
But for several of the critics, the decision to update the play with mobile phones, video footage and pitched battles with riot police proved problematic.
While conveying a thrilling immediacy that helped three hours speed by, some felt the old concept of the divine right of kings was confused by the modernisation."Even if the play wears modern-dress uneasily," Michael Billington said in The Guardian, "Spacey's fine performance confirms his Shakespearean credentials."
What the reviews said
* "There are already moments when Spacey discovers the man behind the royal mask." Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph
* "He has the kingly authority naturally to command the Old Vic stage." Michael Billington, The Guardian
* "If it's your introduction to the play, this Richard will serve very well." Sheridan Morley, Daily Express
* "The production finally sentimentalises Richard, the crown guiltily laid upon his coffin, but Spacey's unlovely, unstable monarch merits no such posthumous sympathy." Nicholas de Jongh, London Evening Standard
* "You don't get the connection to a man's soul, but the play works inversely as a political icon searching for an escape through self-expression." Michael Coveney, The Independent
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