Hong Kong’s Lyric Theatre plays host to Bridge Project’s Richard III

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William Shakespeare in Hong Kong

Last weekend, Hong Kong’s Lyric Theatre played host to the Bridge Project’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, with the eponymous (the character named in the play’s title) king played by top American actor, Kevin Spacey.

The play tells the story of King Richard’s murder of his brother, his nephews (otherwise known as the Princes in the Tower), his wife, and many noblemen who would or might have opposed him in his bloody quest to become King of England.

Shakespeare’s version of Richard’s rise to power was, and still is, controversial. It is sometimes said to be a work of Tudor propaganda that transformed Richard from a reputable king into one of the blackest villains in English history.

King Richard was defeated by Richmond at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond went on to become King Henry VII. Henry VII was the founder of the Tudor dynasty, and he was Henry VIII’s father and Elizabeth I’s grandfather. As Shakespeare wrote the play in 1597 during the reign of Elizabeth I, he would have been unlikely to portray Richmond’s succession to the throne in a negative light.

The complex historical background to the play and the large number of characters present on stage can make Richard III a difficult play to understand and/or appreciate. However, Sam Mendes, the director of this production, assisted the audience by projecting the name(s) of the key character(s) in each scene onto the set.
The play was performed in modern dress, but the periods from which the styles of dress were taken varied from scene to scene. In some scenes, the actors’ costumes suggested pre-World War II Britain, with Richard dressed like Hitler or Mussolini; at other times, Richard was dressed like a military dictator with his uniform covered in gold tassels and decorations. This mixture of historical periods unfortunately did not have the effect the director may have wanted, if that was to encourage the audience to think about tyrannical rulers in modern times.
The costumes were not the only confusing factor in the play. Spacey’s performance as King Richard did not reflect the play’s portrayal of him as an evil monster. Spacey drew more on the play’s humour than on Richard’s ruthless ambition and loathing for himself and all those around him. By making the play more ‘accessible’, Richard’s unscrupulous viciousness and nihilistic sense of humour were missing, and these are key to his character and the play.

Some scenes, particularly those involving Haydn Gwynne’s wonderful portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, capture the very essence of this play. However, scenes such as these need to be seen in contrast to scenes such as when Buckingham persuades the citizens of London to support Richard’s claim to the throne. Unfortunately, Spacey’s focus on humour meant that the sense of menace that should have been built up simply collapsed. An example of this was when the audience laughed at Richard’s declaration to Buckingham – ‘I wish the bastards dead’, the ‘bastards’ referring to the princes in the tower. It was quite sad that the play was changed in this way from an exploration of tyranny, dark ambition and murder into a semi-comic tale.
The production was not without its merits though. Spacey’s performance was impressively physical, and he captured the exaggerated acting style of a British theatrical actor perfectly. But the real high points of the play were delivered by the female actors, especially Gwynne. My lasting memory of this production will be of a raw and authentic Act IV, Scene IV in which her naturalistic and emotion-drawing performance captured the true spirit of Richard III.

To conclude, the true lesson of Richard III is that an absolute lust for power by someone with an immoral, asocial, and unrepentant nature can twist the world around them with tragic consequences. Surely this is not something in which there is much humour.

Matt Wisbey

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