Yana Meerzon reviewing from the International Shakespeare Theatre Festival in Craiova, Romania. Richard III is the opening feature of the XV edition of the Europe Theatre Prize held in that city.
Lars Eidinger as Hamlet. Photo:
Richard III is one of the most famous villains of the Shakespearean canon and thus it would appear that any interpretation other than that of a manipulator of people’s emotions, a cunning and purely evil murderer or a monster obsessed with power, would not be possible. Yet, German director Thomas Ostermeier who often finds exciting ways to think through the classics, takes such an unexpected turn here . His Richard is someone who can be likeable, charming, open, and simple in his own evil ways. Pretense is the rule by which Ostermeier’s Richard lives; he even becomes a victim, someone with whom we can sympathize.
Although opposing a long-standing tradition is a difficult task, Ostermieier does not shy away from having his his leading actor project good in the evil of his character.
He has invited Germany’s leading playwright Marius von Mayenburg, to bring this vision to life through a new translation. Mayenburg’s laconic and elegant text does exactly that: it allows the company to run through this early play with great ease in less than three hours.
So what are Richard’s charming ways and what is the world where the monster can become a king? In fact, his world reminds us of our own. On stage, we see a replica of a medieval castle, a somewhat familiar version of the Globe stage with the semicircle proscenium thrust slightly into the audience and the brick two-story wall with a balcony at the back. Much like the Elizabethan style Theatre of the Globe itself, in Ostermeier’s version, all these heights and depths become performing areas, which the actors and the director successfully use. Eidinger’s performance as Richard is most innovative: he approaches the audience from time to time, asking someone to bring him coffee or suggesting that someone turn off his phone. The style is quickly established: Richard is a performer – both on the stage of power and politics, and in the world of Ostermeier’s theatre.
To the right, we see a band stand. Live music is one of the leading voices of this world. Made up of contemporary hits and somewhat popular tunes, the music helps the actors find their way through the action. It also creates the familiar atmosphere of today’s Europe where danger, fear and festive moods are mixed together as if the world was coming to an end.
The world of Ostermeier’s Richard III is indeed collapsing. The Wars of the Roses are over; Edward, Richard’s brother is on the throne, the court is drowning in intrigues and endless celebrations. The war hero, Richard, is back. He helped his brother rise to power but now he has been left out. He is an outsider, a crippled hunchback, not taken seriously by the new establishment, so he comes in with his master-plan: step by step, murder by murder, he will climb the ladder of success. But he won’t dirty his hands with blood; he will use charm, persuasion and the creative powers of the intellect to make others fall for him.
He begins with Lady Anne – the scene features Lady Anne in a prayer for her late husband centre stage, standing by the open coffin. Richard slowly approaches from the left, paying his respects, keeping away from her. But as soon as he gets a chance, he begins talking of his love. Next thing, we see him naked before Lady Anne, risking his physical vulnerability, pushing the sword against his bare chest. The charm is inescapable – Anne, much like the audience, falls for Richard’s scheme and so the game begins.
However, Richard is not just cunning; the secret of his success is in his creative imagination. The court is mediocre, it is the image of bureaucracy and self-indulgence; hence anybody capable of understanding how human nature works can take it over. Richard does exactly this: he has a silver-tongue, the quality that Mayenburg and Ostermeier wanted to highlight in this character. He is a performer and a puppeteer too. He knows only too well how to manipulate those around him; especially if they already appear to be half-human. The court is dull and mechanical in its movements and emotions. Ostermeier reveals his view of the court and the way Richard sees it through his decision to cast two life-size puppets in the roles of Edward’s children. These puppets/children are perhaps the most alive and human-like characters on stage; they are truly defenceless and innocent, they remind us of the famous puppets by Kantor and so they elicit our sympathy. Their fate, however, has been decided – nothing will stop the war hero from getting what he thinks is rightfully his.
The ending is symbolic: not only because Mayenburg and Ostermeier transformed the some-what descriptive Acts 4 and 5 of the original into Richard’s “physical monologue”, his semi-dreamlike representation of the wars that followed his coronation, but also because he dies like a dog.
On stage, there is a table, which serves Richard as his dining room, his bedroom and his grave. As he dreams of his deeds, the victims appear around the table. To make sure the audience understands how Richard’s mind works, Ostermeier uses a microphone and a video projection of his face for his monologues. Spoken in German and English, this technique reveals Richard’s foxy nature. “My kingdom for a horse” is the last line Richard speaks. From above , a rope drops down with a noose at its end. Richard slips his deformed foot through the loop, the rope is pulled up and there is his body, dangling upside down, like the carcass of an animal. A real dog’s death!
Essentially, this production is a study of character, a play about Richard and others in the world, even though Ostermeier insists, he thought of the play as an ensemble piece with all the characters equally contributing to the development of the intrigue. Premiered in February 2015 in Berlin, this show has already visited a number of countries and is now playing at the International Shakespeare Theatre Festival in Craiova, Romania as the opening feature of the XV edition of the Europe Theatre Prize.
Richard III, William Shakespeare. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier ( Artistic director of the Berliner Schaubühne) translated /adapted by Marius von Mayenburg; stage design bu Jan Pappelbaum; costume design by Florence von Gerkan; music: Nils Ostendorf. Produced by the Berliner Schaubühne