NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, a new documentary from executive producer Kevin Spacey about his world tour of Richard III with nearly 20 actors for 200 sold-out performances, actually has a very apt subtitle, since viewers of this doc remain in the wings for the entire runtime, away from much of the stage action and the creative journey of its stars.
NOW relies heavily on context and easy quotes from Spacey and Sam Mendes (who directed the play) – both Oscar-winners for their first collaboration, American Beauty – to introduce audiences to what draws these men best known for cinema to the theatre. Mendes was the brainchild of The Bridge Project, a trans-Atlantic company that brought actors from the New York and London theatre scene together. Its final production in 2012 was Richard III, with Spacey in the title role as one of Shakespeare’s most gleefully corrupt misanthropes.
“The thrill of theatre is the fact that it’s alive and it’s happening once only in front of your eyes,” Mendes affirms, in a plea to get movie-watchers away from the big screen and into buying a theatre subscription. However, as much as the two men promote how wonderful it is for either an actor or director to partake in other artful domains, much of the insight is quashed into hagiographic comparative points like the one above.
Spacey and his ensemble have globe-trotted around the world more than James Bond, the character that Sam Mendes has focused on since wrapping up The Bridge Project. Videographers fly around with them, joining with the cast as they explore city squares in Istanbul, walk along the Great Wall of China and roll down sand dunes near Qatar. A few of their travels are interesting, especially one to the Epidaurus, a 2,000-year old amphitheatre in Greece that has been around since the dawn of the theatrical arts. However, most of this off-set bonding is superfluous and takes up nearly 15 minutes of NOW’s running time.
The film is paced too quickly, as well, and is also a bit bland at times. Director Jeremy Whelehan crams in a lot of rehearsal footage, actors telling us the details of Richard III‘s complex plot, as well as those same actors telling us how much they adore working with Spacey. For a backstage documentary, NOW is only a fair exploration of a stage actor’s creative process as besides Spacey, the film spends too little time with many of the performers as they tell us their story and about their artistic journey.
There are a few minutes spent here with the Oscar-winning actor as he talks about getting into his role. “I don’t start a performance by going into a corner and becoming Richard III,” he says. House of Cards fans may enjoy Spacey’s take on the Shakespearean character, one that evokes many similarities to the actor’s current role as the darkly funny Francis Underwood. Both Richard and Francis had a wry sense of humour and talk to the audience, making them a co-conspirator in the dastardly villain’s actions. However, this attention to Spacey’s craft is not repeated with much of the company.
The only other major acting note comes from Annabel Scholey, who speaks about her struggles with playing Lady Anne, specifically in a scene when Richard seduces Anne to marry him. We watch Scholey try to find the sexual energy with her co-star and be at Spacey’s level at each moment. With these exceptions, we hardly get to know many of the stars that share the stage with the Oscar-winner. Strangely, there is precious little time with Gemma Jones, a legendary British actor in the role of Queen Margaret, and also little with younger, fresh-faced actors, as they react to being part of the no-holds-barred production.
A bit more revealing are some of the production concerns; for instance, how to bring enormous set pieces into theatres that do not have very large entrances. Since each theatre is different, stage managers have to learn how to construct the play anew in each city. Some of the crew members talk about various creative choices made to make the Shakespearean language and setting more relevant to a modern audience. In one scene, a newly crowned Richard III walks in wearing a suit similar to one worn by Moammar Gadhafi.
NOW: In the Wings of a World Stage is compiled mainly of talking head interviews, which intrude on the scenes performed both live and in rehearsal. There are far too few moments to relish the performers putting on a show, as unfortunately, these scenes of triumph and tragedy have the actor’s voice-over underneath. At certain parts, it is like having a DVD’s audio commentary gripe in when you just want to watch the movie come alive. When the film slows down and we can admire either the process of the rehearsal or the power of the final scene, NOW takes off. When they collide as Whelehan jumps back and forth between the stage and the rehearsal space though, it becomes muddled.
It is hard to think of who the intended audience of NOW: In the Wings of a World Stage is. Theatre buffs will likely be bored by the lack of insight into the production, although there are some funny interactions between the cast members backstage. Fans of Shakespeare may find there are too few scenes of the grand production, not enough to satisfy their craving to see the production. Meanwhile, there has already been a star-studded behind-the-scenes doc of the play, Al Pacino’s 1996 film Looking for Richard, which even featured Spacey in a supporting role. Audiences would be better off just going to a play or re-watching a fine rendition of a Shakespearean classic than to see this haphazard look behind the stage.
NOW: In the Wings On A World Stage is a flat and only sporadically fascinating documentary that will likely disappoint fans of both Spacey and Shakespeare.