VOD review: NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage
Capturing the stage on screen8
James R | On 10, Jun 2014
Director: Jeremy Whelehan
Cast: Kevin Spacey
Watch NOW: The Film online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play
“I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.”
What a strange film NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage is. First, we have cinemas broadcasting theatrical plays. Then, we have websites offering digital theatre on-demand. Now, we have a behind-the-scenes documentary about Sam Mendes’ Richard III released on UK VOD the day after it hits cinemas. If you’re already switching off, this isn’t for you. If you saw the play, on the other hand, this is an interesting accompaniment.
The movie follows Kevin Spacey et al. as they perform the final part of the Bridge Project, a scheme that formed a company of British and American actors and then toured 12 countries, from Doha to Beijing and Istanbul. If you’re going to film the making of a play, this is the one to choose.
Director Jeremy Whelehan hangs out on the dozen different sets and records the preparations, performances and post-show celebrations, attempting to convey the camaraderie of the group, as well as offer insight into the production. He mostly succeeds at the first half.
Front and centre is, of course, our Kev. “The audience give you a feeling back – it’s like a game of tennis,” he says in one of many asides to the camera. (After Richard III and House of Cards, you can imagine Spacey delivering asides constantly in real life, offering wry comments on his breakfast cereal to the cat.) The rest of the actors echo his sentiment; it’s surprising just how much the show seems to evolve as it moves location. It might be the same cast and director, but every few weeks, a new host of stagehands has to learn the ins and outs of the text, geared specifically towards each venue. More importantly, the people in the stalls change too.
One production in Epidaurus, Greece, sees the show previously designed for London’s Old Vic stripped down for an ancient amphitheatre. The cast talk about the stunning candlelit stage in hushed reverence, frequently crossing the border into gushing thesp territory. If you can stomach a strong dose of luvvy with your Shakespeare, there is still something here to enjoy.
Gemma Jones, who plays Richard’s mum, Queen Margaret, reveals herself as the joker of the pack, flashing everyone and hitting on the young men in the room. Chuk Iwuji as Richard’s right hand man, meanwhile, explains that his habit of holding his hand up to his mouth is to hide the amount of corpsing he does – something Kevin takes advantage of every night.
For all the apparent team spirit, though, there’s a hint of Ocean’s 12 about the proceedings. Who wants to sit and watch other people have fun, especially when it involves them sailing down the Amalfi coast in Kevin’s private boat? “You just get on and smile,” confesses one co-star to the camera, but it’s hard to shake that feeling of an exclusive clique.
Later, though, as they drive through the Qatari desert and Kevin throws himself head-first down a sand dune, you genuinely glimpse the trust that exists between the group; a side of Spacey we’ve never seen.
Mendes offers an interesting take on directing the A-lister, comparing Richard III to their first collaboration on American Beauty in 1999. Sam points out that Kevin is very aware of himself and always performing. “My job is to remove that awareness, to make him vulnerable.”
Spacey certainly seems to be open. “I don’t go into a corner and become a character,” he tells us, candidly. “I’m a firm believer that I bring what I feel that day to the role, if I’m angry or feeling lonely or blue… I get all that stuff fucking out there.”
Whelehan lurks in the wings during the production itself, capturing the cast running between curtains and doors. NOW is at its best in these moments of chaos and craft. We see Spacey dance and limber up before limping out onto the stage. Is he doing that for Jeremy’s camera, or is this him at his most vulnerable?
The play itself culminated with a bravura moment that sees Kevin hoisted upside down on a chain, swinging back and forth like a meaty pendulum. For those in the theatre, it was a breath-taking stunt. Disappointingly, though, NOW doesn’t go into detail on how this was set up – although it does document the moment on camera for those who weren’t there.
That’s the biggest triumph and downfall of the whole thing. For audiences familiar with the production, NOW is a curious access-all-areas extra. For audiences who didn’t get a ticket, the lack of a sister recording of the show leaves this feeling incomplete and, at times, self-congratulatory.
Aye, there’s the rub. That’s the nature of theatre, one that the documentary constantly returns to: it’s a game of tennis and needs the right audience to make it work. As the people on the other side of the net change, so does the show. “It can only exist then,” laments Spacey, with a hint of The Usual Suspects, “and then it’s gone.”
In a world where plays are now regularly available on-demand, though, NOW In the Wings on a World Stage is a unique oddity. At its worst, it’s a travelogue. At its best, it’s an attempt to capture the transient nature of the stage on screen; a fascinating special feature for a DVD that can never exist.