There's little question that, as impressive as Mendes' earlier Bridge Project undertakings were, this production is his crowning achievement. It's also a notable addition to Spacey's resume as well, which boasts an Oscar for his performance in Mendes' award-winning American Beauty. Indeed, the two men certainly know how to entice the best from each other.
Featuring a disfiguring hump on his back and wearing a brace on his radically distorted left leg, Spacey is spotted initially before a newsreel of the ailing King Edward IV (Andrew Long). Declaring "the winter of his discontent has been made glorious summer," Spacey addresses the audience with such a diabolical glint in his eye that he's instantly enthralling. This is a Richard so contemporary by way of his dictatorial wiles and who so personifies the phrase "a villain you love to hate" that it's surprising he doesn't ask the paying crowd he holds in his withered hand to follow him on Twitter.
And who wouldn't, as he goes about eliminating anyone who stands between him and the throne he covets? Watching him manipulate the court with his bottomless bag of wiles and then, alone, reveal his icy hatred for the world is to see an actor at the peak of his considerable powers. He's particularly amusing in a calculated self-effacing manner, when -- showing up on a screen as if televised from a sanctuary -- he repeatedly refuses the monarch's post as too lofty for a spiritual being such as himself.
He's also mesmerizing in what turn out to be this production's three most powerful scene: his wooing of Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) as her slain husband lies in a nearby coffin, his confrontation with mad Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones) as she predicts the demise of the court's myriad schemers, and his encounters with Queen Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) as she eventually fails to thwart the now ascended Richard III from making an alliance with her daughter. All three actresses give Spacey as good as they get.
The same can be said of just about everyone in the company, especially Chuk Iwuji's smiling but doomed Buckingham, Simon Lee Phillips' slickly sinister hit-man Tyrrel, and Chandler Williams' debauched Clarence.
As might be expected, the show's creative team also delivers the goods: Catherine Zuber's costumes hint at Fascist Italy, a reference that pays off in a wickedly startling ending not to be revealed here; while Tom Piper's stark-gray, door-filled set (with doors eventually getting X's scrawled on them to denote the mounting dead), Paul Pyant's spectral lighting, Gareth Fry's gloomy sound, and Terry King's clanging swordplay all contribute to the production's success.
It could be said that excellent as Spacey's emoting is, there is a flaw: His profound enjoyment of Richard's evil is so thorough that when the man develops a conscience just before his fatal Bosworth field battle, the actor can't quite convince us of the unexpected remorse. Of course, this is Shakespeare's problem as well for having written such an alarming but so frequently charming villain. Still, it's a small concern when the entertainment quotient has been this charmingly high.