In the wings with Kevin Spacey

A rather unconventional documentary, Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes’ NOW: in the Wings on a World Stage is actually precisely what it professes to be: a discursis on the universality of theatre as a storytelling mode from the perspective of an acting company. That Richard III serves as its medium is a secondary concern. The documentary sees no need in proving what it takes to already be a given: the dissemination the plays by William Shakespeare is now undeniably a global project, an international vocabulary. Some time is spent early on meditating on the differences and inevitable similarities between the British and American styles of acting blended in and by the company, but only as a springboard to the international investments of the Bridge Project Company and the voyeuristic theatre tourism the film provides. In this way the documentary immediately departs from its predecessor, Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard (1996), refusing to venerate the individual artist but rather the communality of a playing company and the creative process that it generates.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece begins to fill back in July of 2011. Photo courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr.

The film’s stress on the community of players and the community of humanity that theatrical performance generates unintentionally (I think) gives us access into the enigmatic Spacey—his process and person. He reminds me here of the equally enigmatic and mercurial Anthony Hopkins and George Clooney. Very different types of men, they share a committed bachelorhood and dedication to their craft that gives us no access to their interiority, their motivations, despite their immense celebrity. In the film the actors share their anxieties about working with Spacey out of their respect for his skills and integrity. Throughout the film we see him make explicit efforts to connect to his team one-on-one in a convertible drive-through of San Francisco as well as a group rolling down sand dunes in the Qatari desert. For his birthday, the troupe has a bobble-head doll made of him in character. He refuses to be singled out by later having dolls made of each of the cast in costume as a parting gift. Yet the magnanimity of the gift only sets him further a part it seems. On more than one occasion Spacey mentions ’loneliness’ as an affective motivator for his acting. It seems Menedes, who is never shown working with the whole group, in rejecting the communality Spacey so desires and attempts to cultivate, holds the key to his stunning performance.

And it is a stunning production, both in terms of scale and conception. Thematizing the notions of tyranny and dictatorship—notions we’d like to think only reside in a feudal past but remain ever-present in our relationship with the Arabic world—Mendes encouraged Spacey in the kind of thoughtful hyperbole of character he does so well. The film uses both the arc of the play and their travel as its structure, showing us clips from workshops of each act at the Old Vic and then the product at the ampitheater in Epidaurus to the futuristic Beijing theatre center. Refusing to make Mendes or Spacey a chorus to the company’s process and progress, nor privileging any particular locale, the film tries to enact its communal, globalization message to match the rhetoric. (To further the notion of access, you can stream the film or purchase a hard copy, as I did.

Spacey prepares backstage in his costume inspired by Muammar al-Gaddafi on 20 October 2011, the day the Libyan dictator was killed.

In this way the documentary is a hybrid of sorts, part teleplay and part process film. What it doesn’t acknowledge is its liminal relationship to the production of Richard III that it documents that two years later has indeed made a deep impact it has had as a kind of capstone to Spacey’s efforts at the Old Vic over the last decade to revitalize the international reputation of British theatre. Last month while in London, my mother and I escaped a rainy afternoon by ducking into the National Portrait Gallery. It ended up being one of our more favorite moments on the trip. As we enjoyed our cream tea upstairs while looking at the panorama of London in the cafe, after the portraits of Elizabeth I, the Chandos Shakespeare (her perennial favorite), and the unexpected Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Dickens paintings, we talked a long while about Jonathan Yeo’s inclusion of the portrait of Kevin Spacey based on this production. We loved it, but weren’t sure of its significance, its justification for being there. As the artist explains:

We decided to put him in character as Shakespeare’s notorious villain, partly as a nod to the tradition of theatrical portraits of the past, and partly as a celebration of what may go down as his most memorable stage role. The main dilemma with painting a great actor in a role is knowing how much you are portraying the man and how much the character he is playing. In the end I tried to leave it to the viewer to decide for themselves. It’s been _Richard III_’s year, from being unearthed in a Leicester Council car park to being on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Not a bad showing for someone who’s been dead for six centuries!

NOW seems to me, then, to be one of a number of peripheral meditations on the growing cultural product whose signifier is “Richard III.” Perhaps this is why a number of reviews have rated it poorly, claiming it is insular and more of a vanity project than illuminating to a wider audience. The documentary, rather than making an explicit claim to exigency that the genre typically facilitates, insteads gestures toward the significance of this production, to whose context we are as yet too close as to yet see its impact. Perhaps that is as it should be if its impact is to be beyond the shores of Albion.