Too Soon Forgot
The Ethics of Remembering in Richard III, NOW, and House of Cards
Three interconnected performances of Shakespeare's Richard III display the extreme hermeneutical volatility of representation when remediated through a celebrity's personal history. The film NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage (dir. Jeremy Whelehan, 2014) documents the Bridge Project Company's Richard III directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey (2011-12), a production launched at London's Old Vic and transferred to twelve cities across the globe. Just prior to the distribution of NOW, Netflix released its first season of House of Cards (2013) with Spacey as the politician, Francis Underwood, at the center of its seamy landscape. Spacey insists in multiple interviews, "The truth is Frank [of House of Cards] wouldn't exist without Richard III." The House of Cards indebtedness goes deeper than the Mendes production since both Michael Dobbs's original book trilogy (1989-1995) and the Andrew Davies-BBC television adaptations of Dobbs's work (1990; 1993; 1995) acknowledge Shakespeare's history play as inspiration. This web of Richard III performances and slant appropriations does not simply chronicle literary indebtedness but also prompts questions about epistemological ethics and hermeneutical instability. As of October 2017, these three performances of Richard — the Mendes staged instantiation, the Spacey-as-Richard of NOW, and Richard as Frank Underwood — are haunted by the revelation of Spacey's career-long sexual predation. All three Richards began their artistic journey trading on the capital of Spacey's notoriety and deploying a curated history as remediative strategy for producing the 400-year-old play. Now the intersection between celebrity biography and performance confronts the responsibilities of knowing and challenges the affective pleasure viewers take in witnessing the unfettered agency and appetitive voracity of the powerful. The destructive intrusion of Spacey's celebrity biography on the memory and meaning of this suite of Richard III performances provokes heightened ethical scrutiny not just of the institutions that protect predatory artists but also of audiences who must acknowledge their own complicity with Richard's seductive immorality and the stars who play his part.
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