New York Times, Friday, June 15, 1979
"Al Pacino Plays Richard III"
by Richard Eder
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 imbalance 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 is 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 its is almost 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' 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 that part.
There are 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.
Hastings' 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.