The first words uttered onstage occur when Richard the Craven Hearted -- our narrator, protagonist and antagonist, all wrapped into a misshapen body that resembles an ugly question mark -- turns his baleful gaze to the audience and states, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York." Four acts later, as Richard's villainous reign is crashing down upon his hunched back, he looks to the heavens and implores, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
Great lines, both. But here's the rub: The two timeless speeches are separated by more than three hours of stage time. In order to sustain viewer interest through a long evening, a director must be as cunning as the play's title character.
In the current St. Louis Shakespeare production, director Robin Weatherall offers up a plateful of visual surprises that help to clarify the proceedings. At the outset, even before Richard's opening oration, Weatherall adds an impressive tableau of King Edward's coronation; having seen Edward, now the viewer can appreciate who "the sun of York" is.
Another example: After Richard has succeeded Edward as king, he meets with a simple-minded killer to plot the murders of two children. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Richard grabs a pillow from his throne and nearly smothers the befuddled man to death. Without so much as a word having been uttered, we now know how the offstage murders are to be accomplished. These are the kinds of moments that mark the production's intelligence.
Then there's the music. Weatherall is primarily a composer. So it's no surprise that in this, his directorial debut, he has provided a stirring and seamless sound design. His grandiose, edgy score hurls the evening forward even as it ricochets off the walls of the Grandel Theatre. (What a relief it must have been for composer Weatherall not to have to "sell" his musical ideas to a dense director.) In addition to the evocative sound design, lighting designer Robert Fowler has found an intriguing way to illuminate the shadowy world through which Richard slithers.
In the title role, Todd Gillenardo has seized upon the ruthless animal images that proliferate in Shakespeare's text to create an almost feral Richard. His gloved left hand may be withered, but he is still capable of the stunning attack. When, as king, Richard lashes out at his court, "I am not in the giving mood today," Gillenardo tears at the words as a carnivore might tear into a T-bone steak -- or into a piece of flesh still living. When a loyal subject kisses his hand, this Richard emits an erotic snarl that allows a viewer to imagine that the king might be preparing to bite off a loyal ear. At times Gillenardo seems to have been influenced not so much by previous Richards like Laurence Olivier or Ian McKellan as by Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula. It makes for a charged performance.
Which is all to the good, because without a kinetic Richard, there is no play. Although a laundry list of lords and ladies, archbishops and queens, passes across the stage, everyone other than Richard is a mere stick figure. Despite the thinness of these supporting roles, Richard Lewis manages to bring a persuasive empathy to the frail, dying King Edward. As Richard's royal mother, Donna Weinsting intriguingly conveys a resigned contempt for her anaconda son.
Finally, though, any production of Richard III must confront one overriding concern. To cut, or not to cut: That is the question. It may be nobler in the mind to retain as much of Shakespeare's text as possible, but that approach is a lot harder on the derrière. Because the fact is that as one of Shakespeare's early plays, Richard III is no dense, richly nuanced masterwork. Though Shakespeare labeled the play a tragedy, Richard never doubts, as Hamlet does; he never weighs his actions, as Macbeth does. In his sheer villainy, he is more akin to Iago than to Othello. By the end of his macabre roundelay with the grieving Lady Anne (the sensual Kimberly Mason) in Scene Two, we've learned just about everything there is to know about Richard's reckless character. From here on, he simply adds fuel to the flames. His mayhem becomes variation on a theme.
A director has to ask himself: In a 400-year-old play that is essentially a one-man show, how much text can a contemporary viewer be expected to absorb before concentration begins to waver? In a production that already benefits from so much originality and imagination, it's just possible that a slightly smaller portion would have allowed for an even more satisfying meal.