Ranting, murmuring, leering and hobbling by turn, Al Pacino is giving a tenacious, carefully worked-out performance in "Richard III," at the Cort, and it's all wrong. Instead of the scheming, wholly evil Duke of Gloucester, later king, he's playing the small, misshapen street kid from around the corner - up to no good but at the same time an object of fun.
This is the troubled Shakespeare production that has been running here for the past month and whose sponsors opted for a string of "critics performances," last Sunday through Thursday, in place of a formal opening night with its attendant, and often salutary, tensions. The other day, a spokesman, victimized by the strange logic of show business, calmly stated that this was a "Richard III" for those under 45, and preferably far under, an utterance that would surely have caused the ageless author to do a double take. As things stand, it often resembles one of those Shakespearean parodies.
His back humped and his withered left arm at his side, this Richard slouches about or runs at a dangerous tilt like a young tough, and speaks accordingly, text notwithstanding. And Pacino will certainly be eligible for a "best spitter" Tony next spring, the geysers he sends up being all too visible against the black background. He got his biggest laugh Wednesday evening when, having thoroughly inundated Lady Anne in their racy scene together and been spat upon by her, Richard innocently remarks, "Why dost thou spit at me?"
Pacino's approach is doubly unfortunate since his performance possesses both the requisite slyness and, at its best, the cold intensity of this driven hunchback, a quality the actor has exploited so successfully in the past. Too, his is not a resonant voice, and it is either thinly insinuating here, though always clear, or eles grating in impassioned moments.
The show as a whole, which runs less than three hours, is a mess. The choice of costumes, though of no great importance in itself, seems to reflect the variety of acting styles, or lack of them. The women's clothes are generally suitable enough, but the men wear such things as corduroy suits, khaki army coats and pullover sweaters, here and there adorned with vaguely Elizabethan accessories. Pacino wears tunics - one a velvety creation the color of dried blood and the other a dirty white - and, in the third section (there are two intermissions) a rakish black beret that gives him the appearance of an escaped Montmartre dauber.
There are a few sound performances. The women don't count for much and, indeed, Queen Margaret's part, in common with some others, has been cut to shreds (minor characters have been dropped, as well). But Hastings is honorably set forth by Ronald Hunter, and Richard Jamieson brings a measure of conviction to Clarence. As a matter of fact, the scene with Clarence and the two murderers is one of the evening's most involving, Max Wright making an entertaining Second Murderer with his patented hangdog characterization.
But few of the rest seem deeply involved, and that includes Rex Robbins as Buckingham and Jamie Sanchez as Ratcliffe. Bill Moor has some decent moments as Edward, and Gary Bayer is at least a fervent and sincere-sounding Richmond. But the over-all performance, under the direction of David Wheeler, seems to hang loosely around Pacino's overly melodramatic, fun-loving, almost sadistically actorish Richard, and even to come to an occasional halt between speeches, or else take on the careless air of situation comedy.
The tall setting, the handiwork of Tony Straiges, consists of adjustable plank platforms backed by black panels topped by scrim representations of illustrated tapestries.
It seems a waste of time, this "Richard III," though possibly not for the star's younger fans, as indicated by that spokesman.
The first thing you must admit about Al Pacino is that he is theatrical dynamite. He is the kind of actor who explodes across the stage like a somewhat menacing July the Fourth. And here he is, suddenly at the Cort Theater playing Richard III. In Shakespeare's play of that name. A trifle bizarre.
Pacino is not your ordinary Shakespearean actor. But then Pacino is not your ordinary actor period. He is one of acting's grand grotesques. He has the ability to be at once absurd and sublime, and, even more trickily, disciplined and self-indulgent.
He is an actor who trades images for performances. You leave the theater with a conception of the totality of a portrait rather than its carefully sketched details. Which is why, perhaps, although Pacino is an impressive movie superstar, he seems much more at home on the stage than the screen.
The camera pursues his technique. The stage illuminates his concept. Pacino - whether he recognizes or not - likes to play the same part. The role is that of the madman teetering on the point of sanity. It is energy undisguised and unfulfilled. It is a turbulent shout of life, followed by an oddly leering grin.
Pacino has for some time flirted with Richard. He has played Shakespeare's crookbacked-monster in Boston and in workshops, and now this present Broadway excursion is basically a production sired, and currently directed, by David Wheeler, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Boston, the same troupe that sponsored Pacino's last Broadway experience, David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.
Let us get over the worst first. This is an awful Shakespearean production. Wheeler evinces no concept of the play whatsoever, and visually it is such a disaster area that it could almost qualify for Federal aid.
The acting, apart from Pacino, is, let us be kind and call it minimal. There are exceptions. Rex Robbins does a very decent job as the bluffly conniving Buckingham, and I was impressed with the properly smug nobility of Gary Bayer as the victorious Richmond. The rest was modest to an excess.
But Pacino triumphed. People will tell you to the contrary. They will point out that he has no idea of Shakespearean usage of metre. True. They will say his accents were stupid - ranging from Welsh sheperd to Yiddishe momma in one soliloquy. True. They will say he was comic when he should have been tragic. Well, not quite true.
Pacino's Richard is a monster of nature. He is more hunchbacked than you have ever seen. He trundles across the stage like a sad bag of guts. His eyes glitter with serpent malevolence. He spits out most of words, throwing them out like shouts to an unheeding world.
He looks a bit like a toad - reptilian, squashed and somehow dangerous. But his wicked humor is always paramount. This is the true Renaissance view of the Machiavellian villain. Pacino's playing is untraditional in contemporary terms. It does find however, a few earlier echoes in Olivier's classic concept, and it is oddly close to the heart of Shakespeare's Elizabethan image.
Here is the archetypal villain. A perfect Machiavelli - a Hitler. He has much in common with Brecht's Arturo Ui, another of Pacino's favorite roles. Pacino oozes across the stage like a slug in heat - yet he has a masterful authority. He throws his staff to his minions with a crisp arrogance, but he woos women and statesmen with a slinky, stealthy pragmaticism.
The setting is not worthy of its jewel - yet Pacino glitters with a green and evil opalescence. He at times goes too far. A comic run in the wrong direction to Bosworth Field exemplifies all - but this is a performance not to be judged by its faults.
Pacino has the guts for the part. I presume I have seen every major production of Richard III in the English-speaking theater over the past 40 years, and I cannot recall anyone quite so absurdly energetic. There have been subtler Richards, of course, but none more vital.
This Richard fairly wriggles with life like a mutilated worm. It is a major gift to the season. Pacino should now seek out the other Elizabethan and Jacobean malcontent roles. There he will always find a stage for his art, even when twisting past conceptions, as he must. And will.
A strong actor needs a strong director, and only in rare cases can it be himself. Al Pacino's portrayal of Richard III contains some intelligent and exciting ideas for playing Shakespeare's exuberant villain; and he plays them with a fierce and absorbing energy.
But although he often goes right, he often goes very wrong. What at one moment is riveting, at the next moment - sometimes from excess, sometimes from inappropriateness - becomes ludicrous.
It was a very odd production indeed of "Richard III" that opened last night, after extensive previews, at the Cort Theater. Not in the sense of innovation: it was fairly conventional, in fact. The oddness lay in the extreme inbalance between Mr. Pacino and the rest of the cast.
There was something rather 19th-century about it all: an extravagant, dominating leading player with a miscellaneous and seemingly improvised company assembled about him. David Wheeler is the director of record, but others were reportedly called in to help out. The stage bristles with cross-purposes, crossed purposes, dim purposes and Mr. Pacino's purposes.
Mr. Pacino, whose power to hold and use a stage is formidable, plays the role in three principal and differing ways. First, and best, are those moments when his Richard ceases his frenetic activity and remains still, listening and watching.
With his long, sallow face and restless eyes, he hangs back while letting others act for him or against him. When the little Prince Richard, whom he will have killed, teases him, his smile is innocent and terrible. When Buckingham prevails on the Archbishop of York to break the Prince's sanctuary and deliver him, Mr. Pacino watches the operation with a dangerous absent look. He is the bottled spider.
When he unbottles himself to do something difficult or demanding, he shifts into a different mode, usually quite effective. His courtship of Anne, whose husband he had killed, is most impressive. All people are objects either of contempt or hatred to him. He despises Anne, but she is necessary to his purpose. His face is blank, almost extinguished as he conducts a courtship that is like a contagion by plague. He takes her insults meekly, stolidly, yet at the end of each of her tirades he stands an inch or two closer.
Finally there is the clownishness with which he meditates, soliloquizes and reflects on his actions. One sees Mr. Pacino's reasoning as he delivers his opening soliloquy - "Now is the winter of our discontent" - with his head lolling, his eyes rolling a bit, his speech slurred and a dribble of spit on his lips. There is a plausible intention behind his toothy grins of complicity to the audience, his nods to us, the flickering of his tongue to signal to us that he is up to some new evil.
Mr. Pacino treats us as if we were his own mind; he is acting out to us the depraved monster that Shakespeare has him declare himself to be. The idea is plausible, but it is not workable. It is so ludicrously exaggerated in its practice, and practiced so incessantly, that it breaks the back of the characterization. It wastes, in a foolish, actorish display, the excitement that he has so artfully built up.
What is lacking most of all is direction, and it is almost a tragic lack because there is enough strength in the pieces of Mr. Pacino's performance to suggest that if it could be drawn together and governed, he could give us one of the great Richards of his generation.
Apart from its relations with Mr. Pacino, the direction is generally weak. There are several factors that would make this production hard to direct, in any case.
One is the stage of the Cort, hopelessly small and shallow. Without depth, all the action goes back and forth sideways, largely on a long platform that is one of the weaker ideas in Tony Straiges's uninteresting set. Another weakness is the black backdrop; it shows up Mr. Pacino's tendency to spit when he talks.
Because of the stage limitations, a great many entrances and exits, and one whole crowd scene, are conducted up and down the aisles of the theater. I don't care how good they are: actors clamoring in the aisle are indistinguishable, dramatically speaking, from latecomers claiming their seats.
A second difficulty is the generally undistinguished level of the cast. Of the three major women's roles, one, that of Queen Margaret, has been cut out altogether. The other two, Anne and Queen Elizabeth, are played by Penelope Allen and Linda Selman. Miss Allen is stolid; Miss Selman delivers some of her speeches effectively, but she is awkward in the part.
There is a mannered performance by Max Wright as the Second Murderer - Mr. Wright, unless severely held in check, tends to play nothing but subtext - and competent but uninteresting performances by Gary Bayer and Richard Jamieson as Henry VII and Clarence, respectively. Glenn Scarpelli has been directed badly as the child Prince Richard; the effect is of showing off. As his older brother, Keith Gordon is a touching, awkward adolescent.
Rex Robbins doesn't really fit in a Shakespearean role, but he makes the best of his Buckingham and is often quite effective. There are good performances by Larry Bryggman and Dominic Chianese, and a strong and vicious portrayal of Catesby by Paul Guilfoyle.
As Hastings, Ronald Hunter is superlative, the best member of Mr. Pacino's supporting cast. He is bluff, bear-like and slightly foolish, and when Richard suddenly turns against him and orders him executed, he sits a moment, pale and drained, before rising to deliver his grave speech of regret.
Hasting's death sentence, with his friends rising one by one to abandon him, is beautifully directed. So is the scene where Richard, trapped in battle, fights and dodges among his pursuers until he is surrounded.
It is a pity that the remarkable strengths of the leading actor have not been more strongly controlled and supported. Mr. Pacino is only fully Richard for part of the time; all too often he tends to suggest that Richard is Al Pacino.