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A king for our time

Keith Gallasch: Thomas Ostermeier, Richard III

Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Tony Lewis

Lars Eidinger's Richard is a breath-taking invention—funny, scary, extra life-sized and loaded with the ammunition of self regard. But he's equally familiar: a companion of the order of Australian tennis brats, wife-beating, drug-ingesting footballers, nipple-baring, wild animal-wresting Putins and lying, bragging, golfing Trumps, all dangerous boy-men. But what happens when I run out of breath? Can Eidinger deliver a resuscitative shock and keep the show rolling?

A towering, battered wall, metal steps, ladder and walkway. A large Persian carpet, relic of better times, as make-do centre-wall entrance, split down the middle so that it flaps on entry like a heavy plastic emergency ward door. Across the wall huge projections of stormy clouds and flocks of carrion birds, or a live-feed of Richard's face. Suspended from the ceiling is the kind of microphone seen in boxing and wrestling stadia, loaded here with a light and a video camera for the showman villain to broadcast fantasies and victories and confide the psychological pain of the unhealed wound of his much-mocked disability. And he swings from the mike; in the end, hung from it, dead, upside down like hunting kill.

This Richard looks hybrid: part boxer, bouncy, head capped in protective leather; part rock star, rapping lines on his mike, backed by a stage-side drummer; part child, ready to run naked for his fans, for Queen Anne (to play vulnerable and honest) or for the heck of it—squatting, legs splayed, genitals bared as he chats to us. He's unpredictable, toying with us as much as with his victims. Key lines delivered in German are then tossed to us in English. Losing the thread of a devious argument, he'll turn to the surtitles, grab the words he needs and with an ah-ha smile render us complicit in the deed and in the theatre game.

Taking it to the extreme, Richard as punk humiliates his erstwhile co-conspirator Buckingham by pushing food into the man's face and rubbing soil into his suit, yelling in English, "You look like shit!" and "Have you eaten any pussy today?" and inviting a partly-willing audience to join in the abuse.

Lars Eidinger, Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Lars Eidinger, Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Tony Lewis

A neck brace and a corset for an otherwise naked Richard added midway suggest physical decline, but it's more like a fashion statement since he's no less full of drive. His end comes even quicker than usually anticipated. Instead of nightmares and self-doubt followed by a stage battle to the death with his enemies, director Ostermeier compounds these into a solo delirium within which Richard leaps from his bed to fight empty space—a war more against himself than his enemies. It's a chilling image in itself but does feel peremptory and off-kilter. It sits restlessly with me and heightens the sense of having witnessed a brilliant one-man show, so much does this Richard not only eat the furniture, but crowd the stage and auditorium.

But even Lars Eidinger's Richard needs ensemble performers with heft: an Anne (Jenny König) almost too strong to be duped, a Margaret (Robert Beyer) psychologically beyond defeat and an Elizabeth (Eva Meckbach) he thinks he's played but we see the strength he does not. The tense scene in which the ailing King Edward (Thomas Bading, another fine performance) and his court are manipulated by Richard is masterfully constructed, with Eidinger in lower key. The crises of conscience of the two murderers are affecting and the exchange between the doomed princes (realised in the manner of bunraku puppetry) and Richard, in which one hoots at him like a chimp, is unnerving. But not all scenes are of the same order, some surprisingly conventional, some sluggish.

What strikes hardest is the absolute distance between Eidinger's brilliant, complex grotesque and the characterisation of the rest of the court, as if not of the same universe, or stage. For all that, I was impressed with the extremity of Ostermeier's vision and Eidinger's performance, putting Shakespeare's genius and our empathy for Richard to test. We can be forgiving because he's wickedly funny, an expert deceiver of the all too gullible and he's a villain with disability—his one emotional claim on us. Did I forgive? I felt gullible. This is, after all, theatre for our times.

Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Richard III, Schaubühne Berlin, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Tony Lewis

Adelaide Festival: Schaubühne Berlin, Richard III, writer William Shakespeare, translation and version Marius von Mayenburg, director Thomas Ostermeier, dramaturgy Florian Borchmeyer, designer Jan Pappelbaum, costumes Florence von Gerkan, Ralf Tristan Scezsny, music Nils Ostendorf, video Sébastien Dupouey; Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide, 3-9 March

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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