Richard lll by William Shakespeare. Translation and version by Marius von Mayenburg.
Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Stage design by Jan Pappelbaum. Costume design by Florence von Gerken. Music by Nils Ostendorf. Schaubuehne Berlin. Her Majest’ys Theatre. March 3 – March 9 2017. Adelaide Festival.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
History, it now appears, has cast a kinder light upon the reign of Plantagenet monarch Richard lll. The discovery of his remains in Leicester and eventual State burial, the dogmatic assertion by Josephine Tey in her novel, Daughter of Time, social historian revelations that the two princes were murdered after Richard’s death and the fact that England prospered during his short reign affirm the inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s interpretation.
Thomas Ostermeier’s production is uncompromising, relentless and electrifying in its allegiance to Shakespeare’s vision of the hunchback king. Performed in German with English surtitles, Berlin Schaubuehne’s performance is strikingly faithful to Shakespeare’s text, and yet pertinent in its contemporary commentary on political intrigue, ruthless ambition, an insatiable lust for power and the individual’s struggle for survival. And yet there is nothing predictable, conventional or derivative in Ostermeier’s account of familial conflict and one man’s violent rebellion against the natural order of his time.
The drama takes place upon a setting, reminiscent of the aspects of Shakespeare’s Globe with its balcony from which Margaret delivers her vituperative tirade against her victors, the forestage on which the main action takes place, the recess, hidden by hanging tapestries from which Edward’s coffin appears and a place on the left of the stage where the production’s drummer, Thomas Witte, beats out his voluminous accompaniment to the action.
Ostermeier’s Richard lll is a production cast anew. It defies expectation, opening with a rumbustious celebration of victory in war through which the lumbering hunchback, contorted in his deformity, delivers through a microphone his insidious intent. It offers a contrast to the frenetic drumming , exploding glitter and cries of revelry, and launches the drama into its irrevocable destiny. However well one may know the outcome of Richard’s villainous rise and fall, any complacency is instantly dissolved by Ostermeier’s vision and design and the performances of a company attuned to every nuance, every intent and every motivation to survive.
Ostermeier’s penchant for shock and horror never plummets towards cheap sensationalism. His direction is imbued with brilliant intelligence, and his actors rise to the challenge with performances, sharply etched with purpose, economical in their clarity as a perfectly tuned ensemble. The grand guignol of Clarence’s bloody assassination or the shocking supplication of Richard’s nakedness to Anne’s tormented will are never gratuitous but serve the action with truthful insight.
Central to the drama is Shakespeare’s inimitable villain. Lars Eldinger’s Richard appears as a buffoon, clumsy in gait and out of place in the company of formally attired members of the court. His obsequious grovel belies his scheming design. Like Emperor Claudius before him, he is compelled to live by his wit, stirring his intent with malevolent charisma, Janus-like in his guile and rousing his audience to laughter at his manipulative touches of the ironic. It is a mesmerizing performance, possessing the stage with such understated evil guile that we too easily fall victims to Richard’s redeemable charm. For once I am not surprised that he can turn Anne’s hateful spite to something almost akin to love. Or is it nothing more than her tactic to survive?
Everything about Ostermeier’s production astounds. From his opening invasion of the senses to his use of nudity to strip away all artifice to the use of puppets, so symbolically employed to represent the princes, or casting a male as Margaret and finally revealing the corpse of the slain Richard hung up like a butcher’s carcass.
Good must triumph and Elizabeth 1’s ancestors must prevail. Evil deeds may not pass unjudged, but in the light of contemporary revelation, Ostermeier’s bloody, bold and resolute version may persuade us to consider with wise judgement the nature of humanity in our time. This is a Richard lll, not to be missed!