Director Al Pacino
Starring Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn
Released 17th October 2016
Richard III is Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play, or so we’re told in Al Pacino’s documentary, Looking For Richard. No wonder, then, that it holds a fascination for the theatrical community. Pacino starred in, wrote and directed this documentary, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, hence the DVD re-release this week. But he’s not the only one to have made an exploration of the play and Shakespeare’s most notorious villain. Fast forward to 2014 and Now: In The Wings On A World Stage, which documented the Old Vic’s touring production of Richard III, with Kevin Spacey in the title role. Here, he’s Buckingham to Pacino’s Richard.
Pacino’s film seeks to find the answer to a couple of big questions. Why do Americans have problems acting Shakespeare? How relevant is Shakespeare to today’s theatre and its audiences? On top of that are rehearsal sessions for a production of selected scenes from the play, location shoots and discussions with members of the cast about their individual characters. And, for some objectivity, commentary from theatrical luminaries such as John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, Peter Brook and Kenneth Branagh. All Brits, curiously enough.
If Pacino’s conversations with members of the public in New York are to be believed – and they were filmed 20 years ago – very few people have heard of Shakespeare, let alone been to see one of his plays. So he and his cast are taking on a big job in getting them to try Shakespeare. But as far as the film is concerned, there’s a strong sense that it’s preaching to the converted. It’s very much aimed at audiences who are interested in the theatre, the acting process in particular, and assumes more than a little knowledge on their part. That knowledge includes recognising the theatrical dignitaries sharing their thoughts, because there isn’t a single caption to be seen. But, just in case they need their memories refreshing on the technicalities of Shakespeare, there’s a scene explaining the iambic pentameter, so fundamental to his blank verse.
While Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, it’s also one of his most complicated, so chunks of the plot need to be explained to unravel all the relationships involved. Even Pacino, despite having immersed himself in the project, looks baffled at times. As the film progresses, it increasingly concentrates on the performance side of things, with longer and longer extracts enacted by a cast that includes Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder and Aiden Quinn. The locations vary, from gloomy interiors, to an actual theatre and a field representing Bosworth, where Richard meets his end.
As Pacino’s directorial debut, it’s also deeply personal and he’s hardly off the screen. His villainous king doesn’t bear any resemblance to the most famous interpretations – Laurence Olivier on both stage and screen in the mid-1950s and Antony Sher’s “spider king” from the mid-1980s – nor does anybody ever refer to them. For such a flamboyant actor in a showy role, Pacino offers us something surprisingly pared down with little emphasis on Richard’s physical characteristics. It’s all about his words, looks and gestures.
The film only partly manages to answer its own questions. American actors are probably too reverential in the way they approach Shakespeare, so they always feel awkward speaking his lines and that gets in the way of their performances. But surely there’s more to it than that? As for its relevance to audiences, that’s very much down to the people on the street who interviewed on the subject. And, from what they say, the answer is “not very”. If that was actually true then, and still is now, then it’s really rather sad. And it’ll take more than one documentary to change things.
Looking For Richard is re-released on DVD on Monday, 17th October and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 20th October.