Richard III; The Old Vic; Kevin Spacey in the role, Sam Mendes at the helm. All very exciting, right? So, what could go wrong?
Plenty, if you’re in the seat…sorry, make that on the bench that I was sitting in, er, make that ON. You get what you pay for, and I paid £10. I was ready to pay very good money, or, in my best Italiano, molto poundo for this event, but the show sold out very quickly, I didn’t act very quickly, and I suppose I was lucky to get one of the few seats (and I use the term loosely) available.
Do you know the Old Vic? Built in 1818, it was first called the Royal Coburg. Then in 1834 it came to be under the patronage of Victoria, mother of Princess, soon to be Queen Victoria and, it was renamed the Royal Victoria. The princess and her mother attended only once, but the name stuck. After a period of use as a temperance hall (The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern) Lilian Baylis took it over and focused on Shakespearean production beginning in 1914, by which time it had become known as The OLD Vic.
It’s a great theatrical space, and fairly unique among London theatres in that it retains much of what it looked like when it was built. The galleries rise, amphitheatre-like, at the rear, but also wrap around the stalls, ending at the stage (imagine a large “U” shape), and while there are very few boxes, some of which for this production were masked by scenery, others used for technical purposes rather than for seating those members of the audience who could afford them, the auditorium is still very reminiscent of the pit, box and gallery system that had been in vogue in Europe since seventeenth century Venice, when the first public opera houses were built. Lovely.
BUT! On the left and right sides of the auditorium the upper gallery consists not of single seats, but of two rows of benches. Those lucky enough to be seated on the first row of those benches crane their necks somewhat, but can see most of the stage, and have the tremendous benefit of having their feet touch the floor. I, alas, was in the second row of benches (if you see that you are to be seated in row P, think twice or thrice before buying), situated above the first row but sharing the same level of floor. The effect is that of a baby in a high chair. There’s a bar in front on which one can grip one’s hands, and one below that, on which one can place one’s feet, but in doing so one risks jabbing the backs of the residents in the ever so much more comfy first row of benches.
At very best on row P one can see up to two-thirds of the stage. To sit with one’s back supported by the wall backing the bench is to miss everything save the very edge of the down right corner of the stage, so in addition to legs dangling, one needs to lean forward, placing one’s lower back in peril as well, particularly a lower back such as mine, which is prone to spasms that render me helpless in bed for up to a week.
And then there is the matter of the neck. This production of Richard III ran for 3 hours and 25 minutes. The next time you have that amount of time to spare, lean forward and turn your neck so that you can focus on a spot far to the right of you. Remain in that position for that length of time. Then see how your neck feels afterwards. No, please, give it a try!
By now I hope you are beginning to get a picture (if only Dottore Gianni could draw he would depict it as a drawing – in the form of a grotesque cartoon), of the good doctor, legs dangling and only occasionally propped up on the rail in front of him, back aching from an unpleasant and unnatural positioning, and neck first craned, then strained by nearly four hours of eyes (and head) right. Not a pretty sight.
I haven’t mentioned the fellow sitting to my immediate right, a rather large, shaggy-haired fellow who turned to me before the play began and said, “I’ve never seen a play from this position before.” I had, and responded, “Every inch counts.” I didn’t intend the response as an admonition, but in hindsight I should have delivered it in that fashion. He was completely self-absorbed and one of the rudest audience members I’ve ever encountered. He spent most of the play draping his body over as much of the rail in front of him as possible, disregarding me and the two others to my left, who had to strain to see anything. His shaggy locks, which I’d gladly have shorn, hung down, forming a sort of hairy, wavy curtain at the right edge of my line of vision. And he carried with him a bottle of water. Instead of leaving it at his side, which would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, he insisted on holding it in front of him in his hands, which were propped against the bar I described above. I tried to make him understand via silent gesture (we were in a theatre after all and Shakespeare was being spouted. I had no desire to compete with that, nor to disturb other members of the audience. I am after all a gentleman) that it would be better for all of us to his left if he would stop cradling the silly bottle and just put it down. But he either did not understand or did not care, and persisted.
That he carried the bottle was irksome. The manner in which he held it began to fascinate me. He gripped it with one hand, but felt the need to prop it up with his other. This created an effect that I’m sure he did not intend, but which began to intrigue me. When I was a boy my father frequently showed slides of family vacations. I felt it my duty to entertain the family when the screen was slide-less and therefore white, by creating images on it: a duck’s head, a bird in flight, a rabbit. I was very good, and my artful handscapes did amuse some of the family, though not my father, but that’s another bloggo. Anyway, my rude fellow audience member’s left hand (which he used not to hold, but to prop up the bottle) was left mostly free – it was not a heavy bottle after all – and the fingers of his left hand moved nearly constantly, forming images, sometimes with the help of the right hand and the shape of the bottle. I clearly saw a bird, also a rabbit…he would have been quite good in front of a blank slide screen.
The full picture of my view runs something like this: the far left of the stage I could see well, and whenever Spacey or another member of the cast ventured into that area I had a decent view. Panning to the right I could see sections of the full stage picture, blocked by the fingers of left hand of he-who-clutched-the-bottle (or is it “of him-who etc etc?), and occasionally I could catch a distorted picture of an actor through the water bottle (thank the gods water is clear – had he been drinking Coca-Cola I’d have been doomed), then farther right a bit more of the stage, but only briefly, followed by his hairy “curtain.” I was blessed when he took occasional generous slugs of water from the bottle, as he lifted it high, thus opening my view of the stage for fleeting, brief, shining moments. When, at nearly the end of the first act, which ran a full two hours, he finished the bottle and finally placed it on the bench next to him I had a reasonable view considering my unreasonable position – and then the house lights came up for intermission.
Much as I wanted to hector him on his rude behavior, his flitting fingers and his bottled water, his hair, etc, I had ordered and bought intermission drinks before the play for Dr. Timothy Kidd and myself and had to rush down to the dress circle bar to retrieve them.
Hmmmm? What? You want to read about the production? Oh, no, no, I couldn’t tell you about the production! Well, all right. From what I could see, and from my increasingly painful perch, it took me forever to get “into” it. Spacey shouted at what seemed to me odd times in the first great speech, forcing a Richard on me that confused me because of the arbitrary outbursts. And he had a sort of whistle he used that amused the audience, but only because it was a whistle, nothing to do with the play, and a few times read lines as Groucho Marx might have. The play was updated to the twentieth century and in the first scene Richard is watching Edward on tv, so it made sense for him to do his Groucho in that sense, but in that sense only. He got better and better as the play moved forward, and Mendes moved it forward very well, building a momentum and urgency that suited it. The supporting cast was for the most part very good, the women in particular. If everyone had been up to what Margaret and Lady Ann and Elizabeth were doing the production would have been brilliant. Richmond was imposing, but his Americanisms (“fer” instead of “for” fer example) bothered me. (This is the final production of The Bridge Project, which features Brits and North American actors in its production). Buckingham wooed the crowd like a revivalist preacher when he urged them to accept Richard for a King with microphone in hand, then beseeched a huge Spacey head on a tv screen to take the crown, Spacey’s reluctant responses in close-up one of the best bits in the first act. The second act was better than the first, Spacey really coming into his own, particularly after his dream through to his death, Mendes accelerating the pace to near breakneck speed, especially from the prelude to the battle into the battle itself. It was a solid production that much of the audience liked much better than I.
But then much of the audience did not have to sit in a high chair, crane its collective neck, constantly care for an aching back, and put up with a big hairy lug wielding a water bottle and blocking its view. Ah, well, I knew the seat was worth probably even less than the £10 I paid for it from the moment I bought it, and almost convinced myself not to go. But even as I nurse my neck and back, and stew over the jerk who sat next to me the morning after, I’ve decided that all in all it was worth watching. I’ve seen several productions of Richard III, the most memorable of them McKellen’s star turn (on stage – the film was more about the period than the play), and Brian Bedford’s at the Stratford Festival (Ontario, not Upon-Avon). This one will not be memorable (although who knows? I only just saw it – twelve hours ago I was sipping wine at intermission with Tim Kidd), but was, increasingly as the production moved forward, at least respectable and by the end very good indeed. Impressive, as increasingly during the production my physical discomfort intensfied to the point at which several times I simply gave up, leaned back against the wall supporting my bench and “heard” the play.
Two weeks from tomorrow night we see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford (Upon-Avon, not Ontario). I pray that my seat that night will be better than my bench last night. It could hardly be worse. And if I see my large, hirsute “friend” anywhere near the theatre I will take his water bottle, beat him over the head with it, then slowly pour the water over his wavy hair. Revenge, after all, is a dish (or in this case a bottle) best served cold.