New 'Richard III' play under fire

Actor Kevin Spacey and renowned director Sam Mendes might be wowing the theatrical world with their ‘modern dress’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but not all are impressed with the goings-on at the Old Vic.

The play unites Spacey with director Sam Mendes for the first time since the 1999 movie "American Beauty" which earned both men an Academy Award.

Set in the 15th century and depicting the bloody journey of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the path he takes to become Richard III, the new interpretation has been one of the most highly anticipated in the British theatre.

However Mendes’ recent newspaper and online remarks comparing Richard III to today’s modern dictators, have raised the hackles of at least one group which fights to defend the name of arguably Britain’s most maligned monarch.

Mendes was reported as saying in recent major press (via the Reuters Press Agency and others) that he was inspired by parallels between Richard III and the contemporary political upheaval in North Africa.

He is reported to have said: "’We are living in an era in which figures such as Richard, i.e. (Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi, (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak etc, are on the front page of every newspaper again," he said.

"What Shakespeare wrote about seems remarkably similar to what is happening in front of our eyes. It felt like the perfect time to do that.’"

But the comparison has brought anger from the respected Richard III Foundation Inc which claims the remarks are in bad taste.

CEO Joe-Ann Ricca, in an open letter from the organisation, published on the society’s website in the early of this morning,  says:

“’For centuries, Shakespeare’s Richard III has enthralled audiences, the sixteenth century’s pre-eminent playwright’s depiction of an evil, villainous hunch-back sending ripples of fear and loathing down theatre goers spines.

‘And this is probably the exact effect Shakespeare wanted. But it would seem that, when it comes to Shakespeare, not only theatre goers, but actors and directors as well, have lost sight of the fact that William Shakespeare was a dramatist, not an historian, working to curry favour with the ruling power at the time, the Tudors - the family that did everything in its power to obliterate Richard III and his lineage.

‘This was made abundantly clear when Kevin Spacey, artistic director of the Old Vic and star of the new Richard III production, and director Sam Mendes shockingly and appalling compared the deceased monarch to Moammar Gadhafi [sic] and Hosni Mubarak  - men accused of, among many things, the premeditated murder of peaceful protesters; illegal hidden detention facilities; state corruption on a massive level; crimes against humanity; state sponsored terrorism and the mass raping of women. Crimes that not even Richard III’s harshest critics have attempted to attribute to his short reign.

‘Spacey went on to state that these modern dictators base their idea of kingship on English monarchy - a statement that should raise more than a few eyebrows, to say the least.  If this is true, then God help England.’”

She adds:

“‘It is true that Shakespeare’s play has long been a source of contention for Ricardians working to restore the reputation of England’s most controversial king. The lack of documentary evidence regarding Richard’s reign was destroyed by his successor, if one can call him that, Henry VII.  Henry VII left a dearth of material to draw from to corroborate facts, and separate the truth from fiction and, when it comes to Shakespeare, artistic freedom.

‘Mr. Spacey is an outstanding actor with an impressive resume, both on and off the screen. His work with the Old Vic and the Bridge Project is highly commendable and deserves recognition. He and Mendes forward-thinking, creative approach to a modernized version of Shakespeare’s centuries old work is admirable. And yes, this is just a play. A modern interpretation of something performed thousands of times before. A new take on the tired and worn-out myth created by Shakespeare is long overdue.

‘But what would be truly unique and different would be for an actor and director to take the time to study and research history of an historic figure, combining modern knowledge and deeper character assessment for a more profound production. For Spacey and Mendes to compare someone that they obviously know nothing or very little about to the Gadhafis and Mubaraks of the world is a discredit to their work and the production, not to mention the good name of King Richard III.’”

The Richard III Foundation Inc.  is a non-profit educational organization that was founded in 1994.

 It is proud to state that it is the only organization that does not take a neutral view of the last Yorkist King. 

Ms Ricca adds: “Continued research has been shown that the Yorkist period was one of progress and enlightened government.  It is our sense of injustice to Richard III’s reputation that enforces our belief that the truth is worth fighting for and one of the many reasons the Foundation was established.”

A spokeswoman for the Old Vic Theatre in London declined to comment on the matter.


·         The Foundation’s  website can be found at and has close links with Middleham in N Yorkshire

·         Richard was Governor of the North for a brief period and still has loyal support in the N of England today in some quarters.

·         Richard III runs until Sep 11, Old Vic, Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sat mats 2.30pm, Sun 5pm, £10 to £52.50 (returns only). Tel: 0844 871 7656. Tube: Waterloo

·         More can be found at
*    "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch." - from Richard III.