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Spacey Hobbles, Leers in ‘Richard III’; Tenor Wanders: Review

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July 1 (Bloomberg) -- The hero of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is called “a lump of foul deformity” by his future wife. Rarely has foulness produced so many gallows laughs as it does with Kevin Spacey as the cunning crookback.

In Sam Mendes’s new production at the Old Vic in London, Spacey mines the part for all its comic potential. With his leg in a distorted metal brace, and a hump bulging under his modern suit, he stoops and hobbles across the stage. His angular posture allows him to look out to the audience from under his brows and flick us sly glances full of camp, conspiratorial glee as he plots his next murder.

Spacey has as much fun breaking the fourth wall as he does planning his many villainies, and his bitter cynicism has an unstoppable energy. He takes some extraordinary risks too. When taunting his enemy Rivers, he pops out a witty punchline while twiddling an invisible cigar in front of his mouth. Richard III as Groucho Marx? What a trip.

It all works beautifully in Mendes’s fluid and well-paced production. An introductory screening of crackly old newsreel footage suggests that the action is set in the 1930s. Spacey angrily turns off the footage with a remote control, jolting us into a loose hybrid 1930s-contemporary setting.

It suggests both the rise of National Socialism and any number of modern tyrannical parallels.

Misplaced Winks

Just once or twice, Spacey overplays his hand. When Richard initially refuses the crown for which he has plotted and intrigued, his comical false modesty is too bald, too telegraphic. He can wink at us in the audience: He shouldn’t be caught winking by anyone in the world of the play.

No matter. It’s when he falls off the high wire that one appreciates just what risks of tone and dramatic truth he takes to bring Shakespeare’s monster to life.

Designer Tom Piper creates a suitably claustrophobic performing space out of three walls of wooden doors. Old Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones), one of Richard’s enemies and a Cassandra-type figure in the play, marks crosses on them each time there’s another murder or execution.

Haydn Gwynne is wonderfully imperious as Richard’s sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth, and Annabel Scholey (as Richard’s future wife Anne) injects a creepy eroticism into her courtship scene with him.

No winter of discontent here, just glorious summer.

Rating: ****.

Opera Pastiche

There’s a different kind of summery fun to be had in the new light-as-froth musical “Lend Me a Tenor” by Peter Sham and Brad Carroll at the Gielgud Theatre.

Based on a 1986 comedy by U.S. farceur Ken Ludwig, it tells the story of a 1930s opera company in Cleveland whose imported Italian tenor goes AWOL just before a prestigious production of Verdi’s “Otello.” It’s a cue for a roster of toe-tapping Cole Porter-type numbers, a series of mistaken identities, some delicious operatic pastiches, and for a nerdy stage manager to grab the spotlight and win the girl.

Under Ian Talbot’s quickfire direction the performers give the impression that they’re making it all up on the spot, just as they should. The 1930s costumes and tap routines are a delight, and Paul Farnsworth’s set whips us from a plush hotel room to the opera stage in the blink of an eye.

Damian Humbley (Max Garber) and Michael Matus (tenor Tito Merelli) have terrific larynxes, and Sophie-Louise Dann shows off her operatic chops as an ambitious diva from hell.

There’s a decent laugh every 30 seconds. It’s just the sort of show that got America through the Depression, and do we ever need it now. Rating: ****.

Early Stoppard

The same can’t be said of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Haymarket Theatre. Tom Stoppard’s 1966 comedy, directed by Trevor Nunn, imagines what the action of “Hamlet” might look like through the eyes of two of its peripheral characters. In between trying to work out what’s happening to them, they discuss life, death and chance in long absurdist dialogues.

It’s a heartless and repetitive piece, hard to warm to, and with too many “hey, we’re just theatrical characters” moments. Nunn’s production plows dutifully through them. Samuel Barnett is an effeminate, flighty Rosencrantz and Jamie Parker plays a more irascible Guildenstern.

It all feels like a dry run for Stoppard’s later, more engaging intellectual comedies. Rating: **.

“Richard III” is at the Old Vic Theatre. Information: http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.

“Lend Me a Tenor” is at the Gielgud Theatre. Information: http://www.tenorthemusical.com or +44-844-482-5130.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is at the Haymarket Theatre. Information: http://www.trh.co.uk or +44-845-481-1870.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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