Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

The Cherry Orchard at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn

We might have thought August: Osage County was a better play if we hadn’t seen this fine production of The Cherry Orchard in Brooklyn the night before. (Emsworth vents about the popular but incoherent Osage County play in this post.)


Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Paul Jesson, and Rebecca Hall. Hall's drab costumes only accentuated her appeal.

Of course, no one needs Emsworth to tell him that The Cherry Orchard is a masterpiece. But it’s easier to make a Chekhov play into a dreary yawner than to bring it to life.  We can report that this production by director Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project is a great success.

We saw it on a whim, ordering our tickets by cellphone as we were driving down to New York City on a Friday afternoon. (We were agreeably shocked to find ourselves talking to a actual box-office employee of the theater, not an anonymous Ticketmaster flunky.) What we Rochesterians didn’t realize until after we’d bought our tickets was that the BAM Harvey Theater is in Brooklyn, not Manhattan (To our shame, we did not know that “BAM” stands for the Brooklyn Academy of Music or that it has been an oasis for classical theater for many years.). We took a different set of expressways, dodged the enormous Brooklyn potholes, and arrived in time for a decidedly undistinguished meal at a kitschy, self-important diner called “Junior’s” that we spotted a couple of blocks from the theater.

The theater itself was something to see.  It must have been a fine old vaudeville playhouse, with its Roman columns, staircases, and a grand balcony, back in the day (1904) when it used to be the Majestic Theater. The place was apparently crumbling and abandoned when (as we learned) one Harvey Lichtenstein bought it twenty years ago and renovated it — after a fashion. It looks as if they stripped away a lot of plaster, down to the pipes and wires, then ran out of money and simply sprayed shellac over everything. We make no value judgments.


Sinéad Cusack and Simon Russell Beale

The Cherry Orchard is set in Imperial Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It is the story of a proud and formerly wealthy Russian land-owning family that can’t come to grips with changing times.  Here’s the plot: When Ranavskaya (Sinéad Cusack) and her daughter Anya return home from several years in Paris, they face a crisis; their grand estate is about to be sold at a mortgage foreclosure auction.  Ranavskaya’s neighbor Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale), a prosperous merchant from a peasant family, urges her to save the estate by cutting down its large but unproductive cherry orchard (of which the family is immensely proud) and converting the land into summer villas for the nouveau riche from the cities.


Sinead Cusack's Ranevskaya is prone to melodrama. Standing: Richard Easton as the aged Firs.

But Ranavskaya refuses to face the crisis, or even to talk about it.  Her inability to engage with Lopakhin, who genuinely wants to help her, is just one of many instances in this play in which the characters simply fail to listen to one another.

Ranavskaya throws money around as if the family were still rich. And she still treats her “free” servants like serfs, like the non-people of Gogol’s Dead Souls, even though serfdom was abolished in 1861, several decades before the scenes in The Cherry Orchard. Her elderly footman, Firs (Richard Easton), pines for the days before emancipation, when people knew their places in society.


Ethan Hawke as Profimov resembled Emsworth in his own student days

Ranavskaya’s stepdaughter Varya (Rebecca Hall) and Ranavskaya’s brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) realize that a marriage between Varya and the now-wealthy Lopakhin would solve the family’s financial woes. Varya is willing, but Lopakhin, acutely conscious of their differences in social rank, and perhaps still harboring a crush on Ranavskaya, has never brought himself to speak to her. Instead, a useless romance has sprung up between Anya and the former family tutor Trofimov (Ethan Hawke), a fervent radical socialist and perpetual student.


Rebecca Hall as Vicky in the recent Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona

There are more than enough “names” in this show. The ravishing Rebecca Hall had the title role in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona last year (we thought she was excellent, although Penelope Cruz got the Oscar nomination). Ethan Hawke had lots of screen time in last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And we remember vividly Sinéad Cusack’s supporting role as Dr. Delia Surridge in V is for Vendetta.


Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

But this show is not just something movie stars decided to do between films; this is serious acting by serious, first-rate actors.

We learned from the program that the Bridge Project is a sort of exchange program for actors, a joint undertaking of the Old Vic, in London, where Kevin Spacey is artistic director, and the BAM Harvey Theater, where Sam Mendes is in charge. (Talk about the movies, though! — Mendes was the director for American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, and the recent Revolutionary Road.)

Because of this collaboration, some of the actors (like Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack) are British members of the Old Vic company; others (like Ethan Hawke and Dakin Matthews) are American. Our only cavil was with the accents. The Brits used upper-class British accents; Ethan Hawke used a working-class American accent; and Selina Cadell, as the French governess Charlotta, spoke in what seemed to be a parody of a French-Russian accent. We thought at one point that the accents might have been intended to match the social status of the characters, but can’t say for sure.

Although we (understandably) couldn’t keep our eyes off Rebecca Hall, we loved Simon Russell Beale as Lopakhin, ambivalent about his upward mobility. He’s one of the best actors we’ve ever seen. And we were especially delighted with Richard Easton as the addled old servant Firs.  These classical actors are worth going out of one’s way for.

The script of this play was a “version” (apparently not a “translation”) of Chekhov’s play by the contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard.  When we got home, we pulled the Constance Garnett translation off our shelves and read it through; we don’t think Stoppard did anything radical.  In the older translations like Garnett’s, the language is so stilted that the essence of Chekhov is lost — or at least so it seems to us. On stage, Stoppard’s “version” was natural-sounding and went a long ways toward closing the cultural gap between our time and Chekhov’s Russia.

This show rates with the 2003 production of The Three Sisters at the Shaw Festival, directed by Jackie Maxwell, as the best Chekhov we’ve ever experienced. We see that this same outstanding ensemble of actors is now also performing Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in repertory at the Bam Harvey Theater. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be back to New York City before its run is over.