Kevin Spacey as Richard III, the “cunning, conniving, charismatic king”

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

One of this summer’s hottest theatre tickets will be Kevin Spacey’s performance as Shakespeare’s most famous villain Richard III, currently previewing at the Old Vic in London.

 In a Radio interview with Spacey and his director, Sam Mendes it’s clear that the production will not be ducking the play’s contemporary resonance, especially the parallel with Colonel Gadaffi hanging on to power in Libya by any means. 

It also includes some extremely rare recordings of Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier and Tony Sher, all famous Richard IIIs, performing the opening speech “Now is the winter of our discontent”. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Kevin Spacey makes of what the interviewer describes as this “cunning, conniving, charismatic king”.

 Olivier’s film, and his own delivery of this speech, was so famous that Peter Sellers performed this wicked parody, reciting the words of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in Olivier’s famous style. Part of a Granada TV special The Music of Lennon and McCartney from December 1965 the show was hosted by the Beatles and featured other pop stars of the day such as Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and Marianne Faithfull.

Can you imagine any comedian doing something like this today?  It’s a hoot particularly when compared with Olivier’s version of the original which, as well as the Irving version, is on YouTube. (Thanks to Carolyn Porter for reminding me of this great clip!)

I was reminded by one of the comments I received on my post on the new play Dunsinane that Shakespeare showed scant regard for the historical accuracy of his plays. Both Macbeth and Richard III took as their starting point Raphael Holinshed’s great historical survey. It’s quite right that an artist should be allowed to interpret his source material. There’s a place for accuracy and proper documentation, but a play, novel or painting shouldn’t be judged by how closely it has stuck to its source.

Portrait of Richard III

In the case of both these kings it’s Shakespeare’s version that has come to be accepted. It’s been particularly damaging for the reputation of Richard III, Shakespeare’s “bottled spider”, a psychopathic tyrant and child-killer. In order to counter the influence of Shakespeare’s play the Richard III Society was set up, which tries to remind people of the real man.  The society mission is “to promote, in every possible way, research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the …role of this monarch in English history”.

The Battle of Bosworth Field is on 22nd August 1485 is the where Richard was finally defeated and killed. It’s one of the most famous of English battlesites, but surprisingly little is known about it. Even the exact location of the battle is still disputed and full information is on the Battlefields Trust website. The Bosworth Heritage Centre has been nominated in the National Lottery Awards for best Lottery-funded heritage project, and is looking for more votes, so do pay them a visit.

It’s a pity that the historic Richard III is remembered for all the wrong reasons, but I can’t be sorry that Shakespeare wrote the play that immortalised him. What do they say about no publicity being bad publicity?

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10 Responses to Kevin Spacey as Richard III, the “cunning, conniving, charismatic king”

  1. Anne Lawley says:

    Richard III has always been one of my favourite plays – my introduction to Shakespeare in a performance was the BBC’s “War of the Roses” series in the 1960s. Ian Holm played Richard, a smiling, and very charming, villain. I know the script was far from pure Shakespeare – but it worked for me. After that, the plays I studied for exams had a meaning. I could relate the language to real people.

    Seeing the visit to Stratford from the Chinese dignatories reminds me that Shakespeare speaks to many people – and is very political, in the best sense.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Great to hear from you! The Wars of the Roses is still available to view at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive next time you’re down here (Ian Holm and cream teas, how can you resist?). Apart from shortening it, I think Richard III was left fairly much as written – it needs no rewriting!
      The Chinese leader was genuinely interested in Shakespeare. I’ve read some comments suggesting it’s a political ploy but this isn’t the case, though of course he wouldn’t have been visiting without the billion dollar deal to sign!

  2. Jo Wilding says:

    I’ve never seen that Peter Sellers clip before – it’s just wonderful!

    Kevin Spacey is of course 20 years too old to play Richard but I’d love to see the production. Chuk Iwuji (Henry VI in the RSC Histories Cycle) is playing Buckingham.

    A very entertaining read which sought to debunk Tudor propaganda about Richard III was Josephine Tey’s classic book The Daughter of Time (1951), written in the form of a detective novel. Inspector Grant, while laid up in hospital, is inspired to investigate Richard by Richard’s portrait shown above which seemed to be very unlike the portrait of a monster. The title is part of a quote from Francis Bacon, “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority”, from his book Novum Organum (1620).

    Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh and, interestingly, under another pseudonym Gordon Daviot, she wrote a play about Richard II with the title Richard of Bordeaux which became a huge success with John Gielgud in the title role.

    If the location of Bosworth is disputed, the whereabouts of Richard’s remains are completely unknown. It’s not even completely certain where he was buried – – but tradition has it that it was at the Grey Friars church in Leicester and that at the dissolution of the monasteries his bones were thrown into to the river Soar. In 2008 a contender for Richard’s coffin was found being used as a water feature in a garden in a small town near Bosworth – – and is now displayed at the Bosworth Heritage Centre mentioned above.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      I’m ashamed to admit to never having read Daughter of Time, and certainly didn’t know where the title came from. Nor did I realise the same person had written Richard of Bordeaux. This must have been when she was much younger because it was a hit for Gielgud back in, I think, the thirties.
      Poor old Richard III – history really does belong to the victors, doesn’t it?

      • Anne Lawley says:

        I can recommend “The Daughter of Time”, and other books written by Josephine Tey – “The Franchise Affair” was filmed – good suspense. I read several of them, many years ago. I recently came across a broadcast of “The Daughter of Time” on Radio 7, or 4Extra, as it’s now called. It is still very gripping, although I must say I got a bit distracted by the way the medical profession operated in those days. The detective works from his convalescent bed, using friends to do his research. It would be interesting to retrace his footsteps through the documents, but I’m sure somoene has already done it!

  3. Hello Sylvia,
    I did like your article on Richard III. Too bad I’m all the way in South Africa, as I’d love to see it. I specifically to the History and Roman plays and am always looking out for links to current events, so I liked your comment to the present situation is North Africa.
    Maybe there will be a DVD recording sometime after the original run of the play live in London. and you might let me know. Thank you.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying my blog posts. I agree it would be good if they made a DVD of the recording. The reviews for Kevin Spacey have been very positive so who knows!

      • Gudrun Rahm says:

        Dear Sylvia, Dear Robert
        After the end of the Bridge Project Tour around the world, I contacted the Old Vic´s requesting for a DVD of Richard III with Kevin Spacey. At that time, they had no DVD in progress or planning. If anybody knows about a DVD, I would be very grateful to learn about.
        I really miss this great performance, since I appreciate my collection of Richard III with Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen.
        Once there was a great historic film on TV in Germany about WALLENSTEIN (the highest ranking general in the 30years war 1618 – 1648) and it took more than 30 years after the TV broadcast until a DVD was produced. Hoping that the Old Vic´s will not hesitate so long for a DVD.

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