Richard III at BAM

  Kevin Spacey as Richard the Third

Kevin Spacey as Richard the Third

Am counting down the days until seeing Richard III later this week.  Apparently, these performances have been stellar, but, knowing the artistry of Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey, how could they be otherwise?

I am excited for many reasons beyond the excellence I expect to encounter from the principals.  Richard III is the first play I ever saw in the theatre, and its unremitting drama (and those fearsome ghosts!) left a permanent deep impression.  Also, my own view has been that this play is undervalued by comparison with the other transcendent tragedies of the Bard, whether because it was written so much earlier, or because of its purported “excess” of grisly murders, or because the title character (incidentally, the second-largest role in the Shakespeare canon) is seen to have so little redemptive potency.  But what some might see here as one-dimensional, I prefer to see as singleminded, a villainous reason so gloriously consistent as to elicit a kind of grudging respect and, yes, a lurid fascination.  Need we any greater “proof” of this king’s humanity—or, rather, its ghastly dark side—than our invariable sympathy with the murderous monarch right up until the famous “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (which, I’d forgotten, are the very last words Richard utters)?

Followers of these pages will remember that I recently conducted Shostakovich’s macabre Lady Macbeth of Mstensk at the Mariinsky.  The contrast between the unrelenting evil of Leskov’s original (faithful to actual events) and the Shostakovich/Preis libretto is illuminating, as is the further dilution of Ekaterina Lvovna’s monstrousness in the 1963 revision of the opera (known as Katerina Izmailova).  Critics have asked whether Shostakovich is just sympathizing with his heroine, or actually, in some intangible artistic sense, excusing her unspeakable crimes?  Similar weighty questions are worth asking when faced with any Shakespearean tragedy, and most especially Richard III.  The run ends on March 4th, so, if you are in or near New York, you still have time to go.