American film star (and, not incidentally, Old Vic artistic director) Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s titular villain begins in such an uncompromisingly evil vein that there is almost no place for the actor to go as the three-and-a-half-hour drama proceeds, except to get, well — eviler.
Which Spacey in fact does, to impressive effect in “Richard III,” onstage at the Curran Theatre. Hampered by a full leg brace, a twisted foot, a crouching posture and a hump, his Richard is, for better or for worse, a scoundrel for the ages.
In director Sam Mendes’ dynamic, modern-dress production — scored with ominous drumbeats and Mark Bennett’s frantic music, all live — Richard initially slouches in a chair, points scornfully at a wall-sized projection of the his brother the king, and utters the famous opening lines (“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York . . .”) with a disgusted sneer.
His is a sneering, leering, mocking, taunting rage-aholic Richard, who never bothers to conceal his cruel nature.
Spacey not only mines the script to uncover every nugget of nastiness, he also finds humor in the character’s mocking, gloating demeanor. That we laugh at his antics makes us uneasily, vicariously, complicit.
And while we’re laughing and gasping in horror, Richard attains his goal. He succeeds his brother to the throne — after murdering everyone in his path — only to die in battle with Richmond of the house of Lancaster, thus ending the reign of the house of York.
In a scene toward play’s end, set on the eve of Richard’s battle with Richmond, all those he’s murdered — including his wife, Lady Anne — reappear to haunt him. At last Spacey digs into Richard’s deeper, soul-wrenching torment, and it’s shocking and electrifying.
Among the many players in this Old Vic production, which features both American and English actors with their various native accents, standouts include towering Haydn Gwynne, a worthy adversary as Queen Elizabeth in an intense scene in which Richard (who has killed her husband and her two young sons) asks for her help in wooing her daughter.
Also notable are: the two clever and doomed young princes themselves (Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely), Chuk Iwuji as the blindly ambitious Buckingham and Gemma Jones as a ghostly and slightly dotty Queen Margaret, whose curses resonate thrillingly throughout.
Presented by The Bridge Project: BAM, The Old Vic and Neal Street
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 29
Tickets: $35 to $200
Contact: (415) 551-2000, www.shnsf.com