Marauding, evil, stylish and, being the sum of so many contradictions, brilliant, Kevin Spacey's Richard III is one of those theatrical moments of stunning magnitude.
From the very first scene to the last encore, Sam Mendes' production exudes not only confidence of interpretation: it also respects Shakespeare by reinterpreting despotic power with minimum effect.
The latest chapter of Spacey's celebrated Bridge Project is immense. The excitement prior to performance on the streets outside the Old Vic match even the most hype-infested theatre booking hall in 48th Avenue at Times Square. There are huge queues for returns. People even stand for the three and a half hours the play lasts in the upper gallery just get catch a glimpse of Mendes and Spacey at work.
But the whole cast deserves immense credit. There are excellent performances across the company with Chuck Iwuji as Buckingham and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth particularly impressive.
Spacey's Richard III, like many previous interpretations of Shakespeare's power-craved monarch, is pure evil but what Spacey adds "off camera" when your attention should be with another actor at the other side of the stage is a constant in character improvisation of evil energy. Spacey is wringing his hands, smiling disconcertingly, looking from side to side and constantly [despite his hunch back and callipered leg] on the move.
Richard, as Duke of Gloucester, is determined to succeed against all the odds and no amount of killing and slaughter, even of his own family, will get in the way. His physical deformity means that he can't be a lover so he will be a villain and, it is soon observed that "sin, death and hell have set their masks on him". The soliloquies are grim: "I am myself alone".
It's well on in the play before Richard declares his ultimate intention "When I am King" and his crazy madness escalates.
Mendes uses electronic titling, percussion and lighting to maximum effect and the set is extraordinary – based on the concept of doors opening and then being slammed shut.
There is a brilliant moment when Richard adjourns to a side chapel with two monks but where, using video, Spacey remains in character but on film allowing close ups of his face and character to drive the audience to sheer delight. This is a moment which anticipates his coronation.
Like most modern despots, despite every act of evil and treachery – there comes a moment when the sheer audacity and ability to commit such terrible crimes, seemingly without conscience, becomes almost admirable and it is then when tragedy combines with comedy until the deep stains of sin can but not be dealt with: "sin will pluck on sin" predicts a terrible end – which it is.
Classy, wonderful, staggeringly well crafted: what more can any theatre lover want? And how totally brilliant that one of the most memorable of theatrical moments certainly in recent times is being portrayed nightly in SE1 as Richard, aka Kevin, does his terrible "work".