Not long before this movie came out, I spent a couple of weeks in London and, among other things, took in a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Bankside. And unlike my wimpy travelling companions, who splurged for box seats, I experienced the play in true groundling fashion, huddled against the stage in a rain storm. Okay, I don’t think the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day covered themselves in plastic bags, but they would have if they’d had them.
To give you an idea of just how long Al Pacino was working on this infectiously enthusiastic documentary, scenes shot at that same sight show mostly a concrete floor with a few wooden frames of the theatre still under early construction. In fact, the actor spent nearly four years on this project (and goes through several on screen iterations of hair length and facial hair), followed by a pair of producers asking him, over and over, “Are you done yet?” His goal is simple and straight forward: to communicate his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s most performed play (even more than Hamlet) to a modern American audience and to make the play’s dense narrative accessible to that same audience.
Looking for Richard follows three loose but closely interwoven threads. First Pacino conducts several man-on-the-street interviews to determine the average person’s reaction to the word “Shakespeare,” which is lukewarm at best. “Boring,” seems to be a common theme. Only one guy, who appears to be homeless, reacts with any enthusiasm at all. He then asks several high-profile Shakespearean actors (Kenneth Branagh, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Sir John Gielgud, among others) about their first exposure to the Bard of Avon and why modern American audiences have such a hard time connecting to his work, even as it remains a vital and lively, especially in the right hands. Kevin Kline admits that he was so bored by his first Shakespeare play that he made out with his girlfriend and left at intermission.
A second thread involves Pacino assembling a cast of actors to perform key parts of Richard III for his cameras, including Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Winona Ryder and working with them as they try to figure out exactly what is going on in the scenes they are rehearsing. The problem is that even the most knowledgeable actors are sometimes at a loss to explain the historical background of the characters they are playing. Indeed, there is a moment where a Shakespearean scholar admits that he has no clue as to why it is important for Richard to wed Lady Anne (Ryder) in the play. Pacino’s reaction to this revelation is priceless.
Despite gaps in their knowledge, Pacino and his actors manage to do an admirable job of setting the stage for the scenes they are performing and making the play coherent and understandable to you and me. The various scenes from the play featured in the movie are obviously filmed on a very tight budget, on sixteen millimeter film blown up to thirty-five, but the solid acting and clever cinematography give these scenes the illusion of much higher production values.
I think this film should be made available to schools, probably the high school level and above with the language occasionally used. It would be hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of communicating why William Shakespeare matters to Al Pacino but also why he should matter to us.