June 9, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
Now: In The Wings on a World Stage @ The Broadway, Nottingham
Almost twenty years after Al Pacino had the odd idea of making a documentary about rehearsing a production of Richard III that never actually happened, and releasing Looking for Richard in cinemas, comes the second film about the processes and personalities behind a version of the play. Now follows an actual production, the Bridge Project’s 2011 world tour directed by Sam Mendes and bringing together a joint American and English cast headed by Kevin Spacey. This was the last outing of the Bridge Project (which I’ve covered in my reviews of The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It) and a fitting tribute to an ambitious project.
At first, the film feels like an overblown DVD extra. Worryingly, as the various talking-head cast members introduce themselves and their excitement about working on Shakespeare, every cliche is trotted out. The actors are uniformly excited to be working with one another; the play is a wonderful expression of what it means to be human; the first rehearsal is terrifying and exhilarating and so on. There are occasional glimmers of interest – the English actors feel the Americans are intimidated by their perception that the English have a hereditary predisposition to being ‘better’ at Shakespeare – but these anxieties are glossed over so quickly that one might even wish – scarily – for the insight and tenacity of Pacino’s interrogations.
This is not a film about the play though, and those looking for more than the most cursory insight into Richard III need not apply. The film is structured around a chronological run through the play, filmed primarily at the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus in front of an impressive crowd of thousands. The production itself offers some fascinating insights – the ghost scene imagined as Richard sitting down to dinner with the spirits of his past; Gemma Jones’s Margaret haunting the final battle; Spacey’s appearance as Gaddafi during the final days of that dictator’s life; the bloody stabbing of the head of Hastings; the deeply sexual wooing scene in which Spacey leans heavily into Annabel Scholey’s Anne, turning her hatred into a moment of loaded intimacy that could have bled seamlessly into House of Cards.
It was a shame, in some ways, that the film didn’t allow for more sustained sequences from the film, allowing us only to glimpse briefly the remnants of the production. The main victim, surprisingly, was Spacey himself. Given the size of the performance the actors clearly had to deliver in Epidaurus, Spacey’s Richard comes across (to me, at least) as grossly caricatured, overloaded with external disabilities and contorting awkwardly. What I imagine was a compelling performance on stage is not meant to be viewed in such extreme close-up. Yet as the film itself points out in its closing moments, theatre’s value is in its ephemerality. As one cast member points out, you can’t take a picture of everything – the title of the film is about a moment that passes.
But this is not a film about the play. It’s a film about the experience of being in an ensemble, captured by Jeremy Whelehan as an embedded documentarian on the tour. Once the production gets onto the road and the film begins following the company to Turkey, Naples, Beijing, San Francisco, Doha and Sydney, it finds its groove. While the cast (and crew – the star for me is the sweet ASM, who talks movingly about having to say goodbye to her family, smiles bashfully when brought out for a curtain call at the final performance, and displays her commemorative Bobble Head version of herself with joy) continue to be nothing other than entirely praising of one another, the intimacy of the anecdotes and camaraderie of the footage in the wings rings true, and we seem to get a great deal of time to get to know our companions.
Several stories stand out. Atop the Great Wall of China, Stephen Lee Anderson (Ratcliffe) reveals his brush with breast cancer a year earlier and speaks emotionally about capturing the moment; and is later seen screaming with elation in a 4×4 careering down a sand dune. Isaiah Johnson (Rivers) jokes about the odd habits of the British and notes that, if this had been an all-American company, there would have been blood after mere days. Jeremy Bobb, on his first trip outside of America, encounters everything with wide eyes and hysterical profanity, and Gemma Jones suddenly breaks her poise to reveal the joys of being an older woman allowed to openly lust after the younger male actors and flash her legs on her birthday from atop a table.
Spacey himself comes off as a genial presence, managing his company (and Mendes, while present in interviews, is clearly only a fleeting presence) with grace and wit. His corpsing matches with Chuk Iwuji are genuinely entertaining, and his banter with the cast a clear part of the group spirit. While some moments seem (on camera, at least) more forced, such as the game of cards in which each actor is given a word to embody for that evening’s performance, he clearly takes pride in his role and company. The most revealing aspect is his constant treating of the company to excursions and experiences. As they pile on board a luxury yacht to sail around the Italian coast, several of the actors joke about needing to make more rich friends or gush in wonder at the complete foreignness of the lifestyle. Spacey does not hide his privilege – any attempt to do so, given the clear expense, would surely be disingenuous. Instead, he allows a picture to be painted of him as a benevolent senior actor, able and willing to give a younger company the experience of a lifetime.
For those who don’t enjoy watching other people’s transformative life experiences, this will be a painful watch (and I won’t pretend that I wasn’t jealous). Yet the places visited are shot with a tourist’s enthusiastic eye. The trip into Qatar’s desert captures the scale of the area, the joyful slaloms down dunes and the tranquil moments of watching the sunset. The space-age theatres of Doha and Beijing stand in sharp contrast to the awkward but evocative space of Naples and the ancient steps of Epidaurus. As we get to know the actors better, we can see them respond to the different spaces and audiences, reacting in hushed tones to the intense silent focus of the Chinese audience and the whooping ovations of the San Francisco crowd. By the time the tour comes to its end, there is a sense of loss and disappointment, and as Spacey reveals a set of specially commissioned bobble-head dolls of the entire touring party, it is clear that the film has achieved its main purpose – to capture a moment.
A live Q&A followed this screening, rather blurrily filmed, which pieced out some of the anecdotes and discussed the process of relaxing with the film crew, but didn’t add much to the experience. The film can be downloaded from Kevin Spacey’s website at https://www.kevinspacey.com/nowthefilm/ .