As much as theater and film have in common, and that's a lot, their core differences can be formidable. A film is the same every time you see it, while "the thrill of theater," says Sam Mendes, who has worked in both arenas, "is the fact that it's alive, happening once only in front of your eyes. These things happen and then they're gone."
It is the particular triumph of "Now: In the Wings on a World Stage," a documentary look at a production of Shakespeare's "Richard III" directed by Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey as the malevolent monarch, that it is able to square that particular circle: It's that rare film that captures and conveys the romance of the theatrical experience.
Mendes, Spacey and their Bridge Project transatlantic theater company took this particular "Richard III" on an ambitious international journey that lasted most of a year. The play started at London's Old Vic, where Spacey is the artistic director, and went to cities as various as Naples, Italy; Sydney, Australia; and Doha in Qatar before ending at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In charge of the film version of this expedition was first-time director Jeremy Whelehan, who'd worked with Spacey and others at the Old Vic as an assistant and associate director and looks on the actor, his director's statement says, as "a trusted friend and collaborator."
Although the good spirits this film conveys may have been inevitable, they also feel very real and completely engaging. Because Whelehan was an insider, he was well-positioned to get the actors to relax in conversation and to capture the energetic joy that theatrical troupes, what Mendes calls "a form of created society," can call into being when things are going well.
"Richard III" has been put on film before, with Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen in the title role, but "Now" (named after the first word in the play's celebrated opening line, "Now is the winter of our discontent") has no intention of showing us the entire play, only snippets to give us a feel for the production and to introduce the company.
It is those interviews of the 20 men and women who make up the cast that is the heart of "Now." Though the only name most moviegoers will recognize apart from Spacey's is Gemma Jones (familiar for her work in "Bridget Jones's Diary," Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility" and the Harry Potter movies), it's not the speakers' fame but their palpable excitement that makes their commentary worth paying attention to.
So we hear Annabel Scholey, who plays the bereft Lady Anne, talk about making her scenes with Richard more sexual than romantic. We listen as Jeremy Bobb talks about traveling outside the United States for the first time, and we hear the cast dish about corpsing, the British term for actors breaking character and laughing on stage.
We do more than listen, we watch the actors working on the play, first in rehearsals and then in the various cities of the tour. Mendes' production was clearly an intensely theatrical presentation, and the director says that once Spacey was in he decided on "an all guns blazing production."
The cities this Richard is performed in add texture to the story. Beijing and Istanbul are interesting venues, but the most powerful is the ancient amphitheater in Epidaurus, Greece, the cradle of theater, where Julius Caesar sat in the seats as a spectator once upon a time.
Though his interview time is limited, it is Spacey, not surprisingly, whose presence demands our attention on and off stage. It's a part, all 1,500 lines of it, which he calls "the most demanding experience I've ever had physically and emotionally," and it's the best example of why he decided to devote so much of his recent time to theater. "It was quite a journey, quite a journey," Spacey says twice, and there's no doubt that he means it.
'Now: In the Wings on a World Stage'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood