Depicting the Old Vic’s touring production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 2011, this documentary – directed by Jeremy Whelehan – explores how a theatre company goes about presenting Shakespeare to a contemporary global audience.
Back in 2003, actor Kevin Spacey took over as the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London and one of his aims was to revive the kind of plays that made it famous, especially revivals of Shakespeare.
Perhaps the most iconic performance of Richard III was Laurence Olivier’s portrayal at the Old Vic in 1944, where the nascent National Theatre company was later born, so this seemed like a natural play for Spacey to reinterpret.
What gave this contemporary production an extra dimension was not just the fact that it was directed by Sam Mendes, collaborating with Spacey for the first time since American Beauty (1999), but that it would tour cities around the world in Greece, Turkey, Italy, China, Australia, Doha and America.
It was also part of the ‘Bridge Project’, which saw US and UK actors participate in a transatlantic ensemble of American and British actors in several productions, such as The Tempest, The Cherry Orchard and As You Like It.
Beginning with Mendes and his cast in rehearsals, the film soon sees Spacey (in the titular role) and his cast take the play around the world.
Crosscutting backstage interviews with scenes of onstage action, it provides illuminating insights into a touring company on the road.
The most momentous place they visit is the ancient site at Epidarus, which is still the best example of a surviving Greek theatre, and provides a stunning backdrop to clearly awed actors.
Istanbul provides an interesting backdrop as the city where east meets west and as tensions in the Arab Spring unfold we see real life tensions mirror the events of the play, with dictators being toppled amidst frequent bloodshed and intrigue.
When they reach Sydney, the real life downfall of Gaddafi even influenced Spacey’s costume in the 2nd Act and the already simmering parallels between Shakespearean villains and more recent ones becomes all too apparent.
Aside from Spacey we get to hear from the company of actors who range from veterans of the British stage (Gemma Jones) to younger Americans (Jeremy Bobb) and a range in-between.
The cultural differences are lightly touched upon but it seems touring has been a bonding experience.
Perhaps the most intriguing venue they visit is Beijing (the National Centre for the Performing Arts), where the Chinese audience is respectfully silent at first but does respond heartily to the unexpected comic aspects of the play.
At one point Mendes describes Spacey as ‘mercurial’, despite working with him on two major projects, and how the process on American Beauty was similar to Richard III.
Although Spacey is generous in describing his thoughts and feelings to camera, you somehow get the feeling that he likes to hold some things back, maybe fearful of revealing what makes his best performances tick.
Given that he filmed the widely acclaimed US remake of ‘House of Cards’ straight after playing Richard III for several months, you can sense how it influenced his performance.
It was already a thinly veiled update of Richard III, with its main villain (Frank Underwood) centre stage and giving frequent asides, but his version seems to be infused with more energy and humour, possibly as a result off his experiences touring the villain around the world.
As the film concludes, with the play finishing in New York, we have witnessed the sights and sounds of what a theatre company go through as they travel the globe.
But there is a sense that the film could have probed a little deeper.
Al Pacino’s marvellous documentary Looking for Richard (1996), which also featured Spacey, was a more compelling and poetic film about what Shakespeare means in the modern age, as Pacino was a more magnetic presence in channelling the spirit of the Bard.
That being said, Now In the Wings An A World Stage, is still an interesting examination of actors still trying to communicate themes and language from the 16th century.
> Official website for the film
> Buy it via Amazon UK
> Find out more about William Shakespeare and Richard III at Wikipedia
> CUNY TV interview with Kevin Spacey about the film (26m)