By William Shakespeare. The Bridge Project. Lyric Theatre, The Star (NSW). December 1 – 11, 2011.

This much anticipated production from The Bridge Project sold out in near-record time, presumably on the name of lead actor Kevin Spacey. For those lucky enough to secure a ticket, what they’ll experience is a clear, traditional, sometimes funny reading of the very long play by director Sam Mendes with a ferocious, high energy central performance.

In modern dress and with a mix of UK and US accents, this twenty-strong cast tell the tale of the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of Richard, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field was the decisive battle of the War of the Roses, and is sometimes regarded as the end of the Middle Ages.

The scenes are clearly delineated by projections giving a title for each scene, usually a lead character featured in that scene. Set changes are clean, fast and precise. Many scenes linger in the mind, none more so than late in the play when the ghosts of several of his murdered victims appear to Richard in his sleep on the eve of battle.

In a very strong cast, Haydn Gwynne (as Queen Elizabeth), Gemma Jones (Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry IV) and Chuk Iwuji (the Duke of Buckingham) stand out. The cast are greatly assisted by an uncluttered stage – a large open room enclosed by numerous doors – as well as a moody and stark lighting plot, and a sensational soundtrack, played live on keyboards and percussion. Several times the cast play taiko-like drums onstage which adds to the urgency and eeriness of the soundscape.

Towering over it all is the spider-like presence of Richard. Spacey has played many villains before but none so dominating and grotesque. There is no doubt Spacey is an extraordinary actor, and brings an intelligence and strong physical presence to every scene he is in. But at times I felt this Richard was too grotesque, too showy, too over-the-top. Where was the charisma that entraps Lady Anne? Where is the statesmanship that coerces so many in the court to participate in his plans?

Nevertheless this is a remarkable production of a play that still resonates in a world where dictators manipulate, rule and fall constantly.

Ian Phipps

Our earlier coverage.

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