As the second longest play in the Shakespeare canon, Richard III presents more than its share of challenges. Most directors find pruning necessary to keep the running time under three hours. Scenes are cut and/or shortened, and the long character list of 45 players is typically pared down with care not to compromise the plot.
In Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s production at the Leggett Theatre, Wade Newhouse scales this directorial hurdle without losing the essential thread of how the Duke of Gloucester manipulates, blackmails, and murders his way to the British throne. It is a tight focus on the utter ruthlessness of Richard III and how his lies, deceits, and treachery wreak havoc in the last quarter of the 15th century.
David Henderson tackles the title role with an exceptional flourish. Sporting a weighty-looking arm brace and gloved hand, Henderson’s Richard III moves with a slightly lurching gait as he directly informs the audience of his schemes. With great charm and dark humor, he unashamedly admits that he plans to be a villain. He isn’t masking his menace to the audience, but actually relishing that he has witnesses to his deeds as it feeds his narcissism.
His cruel maneuvering is on full display early in the play with his wooing of Lady Anne (Jessica Johnson), a woman who despises him for causing the deaths of her husband and father-in-law. A brazen Richard admits his culpability and parries away her insults and objections by professing that his love for her caused his actions. Johnson’s Anne is fiery in her rejection of his seductive charm, but her resistance reluctantly breaks down with the dawning awareness that she doesn’t have many other choices than being his wife. This Anne understands that survival at court requires a subtle skill, not weakness.
The real steam rises as Henderson’s Richard exploits the fears of the court nobles to accomplish his aims. Richard’s machinations work like a hurricane destroying everyone in his path to the crown. He orchestrates the imprisonment of his brother and ultimately his death. Other nobles also start disappearing at an alarming rate and despite some well-delivered speeches, it is difficult to keep track of the bodies. The details are less important than keeping an eye on the bigger picture – what this man will do to accomplish his goal.
Richard has some allies, most notably, Lord Buckingham, who becomes his reliable henchman. Aaron Alderman offers a compelling performance as a loyal follower by adding a whiff of bromance that compounds his utter despair when Richard casts him aside.
Only Queen Margaret, the banished wife of the former king Henry VI whom Richard has murdered along with her son, boldly warns of Richard’s treachery. Laura J. Parker, bearing an eye patch, gives a witchy air to this embittered woman who offers crazy, convoluted predictions and curses, hysterical rantings mixed with veiled truths. She leaps and prowls about the stage like something feral and disturbing.
More notable performances come from the other women of the court as well. Queen Elizabeth (Miranda Curtis), the widow of King Edward IV, also challenges Richard, openly displaying her disdain. Curtis captures the emotional resonance of a woman in mourning who also must do her own maneuvering to survive. Renee Wimberley, as the Duchess of York, also delivers an effective performance that underlines how mothers lose sons in other ways, as her character passionately disowns Richard. While their situations are just as precarious as those of the other nobles, these women are less disassembling, giving more voice to their anger than Richard’s other detractors.
Most scenes involve Richard directly, but as if to underscore his omnipresence, he remains off to the side of the stage watching the devastation he has set in motion. The large cast, 15 actors playing 23 characters (four do a fine job with multiple roles), rotate on and off the stark set, marked with a giant red cross on the floor and a single unadorned kingly chair, that fluidly morphs into different locations. A small group of musicians are off to one side, at times enhancing the menacing atmosphere and unfortunately, a few times overwriting the already present emotional power.
But as the saying goes, winning is easy, governing is harder. Once Richard is crowned, he resorts to rule by terror. Henderson embodies a man who becomes increasingly cruel and paranoid because he actually doesn’t know how to govern. The darkly charming facade has disappeared into rages. A parade of his past victims visit him in his dreams whispering in his ear, and he awakens to find all have deserted him. This Richard feels no remorse, nor does the audience pity him, when he meets his fate.
So what are audiences to take away from this production? What is it about villains that we find so compelling? Their utter ruthlessness? Their seeming lack of conscience about their acts? Or maybe it is how they manage to manipulate and deceive so many to gain power? Although Shakespeare’s Richard III is technically considered a history play, maybe it can also be seen as a cautionary tale. Beware of those who will do anything to consolidate their position.
Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s production of Richard III runs through October 16 at William Peace University.