shakespeare, spacey & the sublime

A review of documentary Now: In the Wings on a World Stage

At first the idea of Hollywood denizen Kevin Spacey helming a world Shakespearean tour seems slightly self-indulgent, if not rather absurd. And few besides Spacey would have the audacity to film the whole experience for a limited-release feature-length documentary. However the result, Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, is more than surprisingly fresh, it’s a moving and, dare I say it, inspirational reminder of why theatre is one of the oldest and most enduring art forms.

Many critics of the film have majored on the self-congratulatory nature of such a project for Spacey, or the lack of focus on audience response and the small amount of live performance included in the final screening. These reviewers have wildly missed the point of the whole endeavor (ahem, Mike McCahill), which was never to be a screened version of the play, nor a sociological examination of the reception of Shakespeare throughout different cultures. The film exists to demonstrate the human quality of bringing an ancient text to life and at this it exceeds magnificently.

In an age when it’s easy to roll your eyes at the excessive celebrity and attention-seeking antics of those in the acting profession, this film serves as a reminder that actors essentially love their craft, surely a human right to which we are all entitled. Away from the glimmering screen realm, theatre throws performance back into the raw essential nature that makes it such a vulnerable exposé of human experience. A touring production is one of the most intimate and exhilarating collaborative experiences an artist can have, and it is the wide-eyed wonder seen on even the most weathered of faces in this film that reminds us of the simple, unifying power of doing something great together.

I quickly found myself desperately wishing to have been amongst the fortunate audience able to share the Bridge Project Company’s ambitious production. The documentary, directed by Jeremy Whelehan, follows the trans-continental cast and crew of Sam Mendes’s Richard III production as it tours from London’s Old Vic Theatre, across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, finally landing for its closing week in Brooklyn’s BAM theatre. Revealing beautiful moments of cast and crew interaction, the complex mechanics of hosting a world tour, and the magnificence of Richard III itself, the film is both intimate and grand; a fitting tribute to what must have been an incomparably unique performance.

The cast is a surprising mélange of well- and lesser-known thespians. A particular delight is English screen monarch Gemma Jones in the role of the murderous king’s mother, Queen Margaret. The documentary reveals her not only to be the esteemed matriarchal veteran of the tour, but also one of its most risqué party girls, at one point referring to actor Isaiah Johnson: “…a magnificent piece of manhood. I’d like to see him without his clothes on.”

These backstage antics enhance our wonder at the actors’ onstage transformation in the small glimpses of performance that Whelehan includes in the film, providing just the right amount of detail to demonstrate the tone and impact of the live production. The diversity of the cast is particularly exposed through the bold decision for actors to maintain native accents. While the idea of Shakespeare through a North American twang is mildly offensive to any English-speaker, the resultant blend actually creates a strange sort of dialectic harmony that enhances characterisation and stage chemistry.

And the chemistry is surprisingly taut, as the actors bring to stage deep reserves of anger, fear, lust and desperation. While Spacey flits back and forth throughout the film like a benevolent omnipresent deity, it is refreshing to see Whelehan focus on some of the more obscure tour members, extracting personal anecdotes and demonstrating without much effort the vast emotional impact the production is having on all members of cast and crew.

Spacey has more than proved his mettle in an array of screen triumphs, further cemented by his Best Actor Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty (also directed by Sam Mendes who likewise received an Oscar). While his eccentric oeuvre lacks the consistent brilliance of actors such as Gary Oldman and Dustin Hoffman, he has nonetheless brought vibrant life to some of the most unique and captivating roles, notably in LA Confidential and The Usual Suspects.

Lately his work on the acclaimed Netflix show House of Cards has reinvigorated his silvering career, and it is the same beguiling barefaced ruthlessness seen in Francis Underwood that suffuses his portrayal of the crippled King Richard with breathtaking aggression. Critics of the production were unanimously impressed, though the more astute noted the absence of that particular shade of self-exposure that truly masterful Shakespearean actors bring to such roles. Despite the brilliant savagery of his delivery there was still that underlying Kevin Spacey-ness in his performance. But you do forgive him for that every time he smiles his trademark conspiratorial twinkle at the audience.

The production makes creative use of live-filmed screening, stark lighting and a bare stage that both imitates the brutality of the play and also throws its lush characterisations into sharp relief. When the lights fall and Spacey, costumed like a deranged groomsman, bursts through the central door hunch-backed and lurching violently on a cane, the first word of text explodes forth from his twisted scowl rendering the performance space at once silent and yet alive with a fervor of expectation and wonder: Now! It’s hard not to feel tingles up your spine, even second-hand through the movie screen, when we hear that most venerated of first-lines and we know the true master, the bard himself, has arrived.

The blunt immediacy of theatre makes it tangibly powerful. Almost as soon as that line is spoken it’s gone again and we are left somewhat stunned in the wake of its poetry, savagery and beauty. “It can only exist there,” as actor Jeremy Bobb says, “The fact that you can miss it – is pretty awesome.” This onrush of hyper-awareness is what brings adrenalin to theatrical experience, and this weighty responsibility grows in the cast throughout the world tour as they sense the vast impact such a magical experience is having on all of them. That the tour is now over, that the production no longer exists except in documentary form, makes viewing it through these excerpts that much more rare and wondrous.

Whelehan wields some magnificent travel scapes, taking us from the peaceful spiritualism of Buddhist temples to the Great Wall of China and the expansive beauty of a desert sunset. One particular highlight, which is tracked parallel throughout the documentary, is the performance in the Epidavros amphitheatre, an awe-filled experience for both cast and audience alike. As night falls and golden lights illuminate ancient stone tiers in an ethereal glow, we see the time-lapse blossoming of the stage area and an immense anticipation arises. After following several of the actors through make-up and preparation, we see the audience begin to fill, eliciting expressions of humility and wonder, and whispers of disbelief from cast and crew. A voice-over from Mendes observes the suspended exhilaration that only live theatre can bring: “It’s like feeling the heart-beat of the world.” This is what Whelehan’s film sets out to capture, and this is what it delivers, with precision, honesty, and a little stage magic.

Now: In the Wings on a World Stage can be downloaded from iTunes or streamed online.

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