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LONDON, Jun (Reuters Life!) - British critics hailed Kevin Spacey on Thursday for his performance in the title role of Shakespeare's "Richard III" at London's Old Vic theater, where the Hollywood star is artistic director.
The play unites Spacey with director Sam Mendes for the first time since the 1999 movie "American Beauty" which earned both men an Academy Award.
The play, set in the 15th century and depicting the bloody journey the Duke of Gloucester takes to become King Richard III and his subsequent reign, was one of the most highly anticipated in the British theater.
Judging by early reviews, it did not disappoint.
"Spacey doesn't radically overthrow the (Laurence) Olivier concept of Richard the Satanic joker ...," wrote Michael Billington in the Guardian newspaper of Wednesday's press night.
"What he offers us is his own subtle variations on it: a Richard in whom instinctive comic brio is matched by a power-lust born of intense self-hatred."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph said the modern dress production of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays was "superb, but missing greatness by a whisker."
Of Spacey, he added: "He offers a brilliant display of bravura technique, but you never quite forget that you are watching a cunningly calculated performance."
James Woodall of The Arts Desk agreed with the overall consensus in a positive review, but added:
"If there's anything missing from his (Spacey's) performance, it's decadence, a whiff of sweaty corruption and moral disintegration -- of the charnel house; but these are small lacks in a full evening."
Spacey has spoken of the pressure he felt in taking on a role which has defined some of the great stage actors.
"You don't want to screw it up," he told BBC Radio. "Is it demanding? Yes. The first two performances ... literally I felt I was running a triathlon inside of a tornado."
Mendes said he was inspired by parallels between Richard III and contemporary political upheaval in North Africa.
"We are living in an era in which figures such as Richard, i.e. (Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi, (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak etc, are on the front page of every newspaper again," he said.
"What Shakespeare wrote about seems remarkably similar to what is happening in front of our eyes. It felt like the perfect time to do that."
Richard III at the Old Vic runs until September 11.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato