With all of Richard III’s Machiavellian scheming and cold-blooded murders, it’s easy to forget that much of the thrill of watching Richard’s rise comes from being a party to his thinking from his opening confession that he is “determined to be a villain.”
In the Richard III that director Thomas Ostermeier and Schaubühne Berlin brought to BAM last weekend, Richard is indeed a villain, a rangy, feral, unhinged, punk teenage version of one as played by Lars Eidinger, with a hunchback prosthesis and one monstrously big combat boot, but the audience was much more than his confessor. Throughout the two and a half hour run time – in other words, much beyond the play’s first scene where most of Richard’s asides to the audience take place – we were prodded to be his sounding board, his cheerleader, and even his worst critic. We might have been uncomfortably pinned at times by Eidinger’s attentions but we were also unable to tear our attention away from his energy, spontaneity and his portrayal of a dangerously armed and juvenile royal.
From his entrance, loping along in the wake of the York clan, who take the stage in gala attire to drunkenly celebrate their victory over the Lancastrians, Eidinger was like a chained animal suddenly let loose, bounding in all directions, frustrated and elated at the same time by his power and freedom. The stage at the Harvey was overhung with a pull-down, box mic such as were once used in boxing rings, and Eidinger/Richard used it to broadcast his thoughts to us at all times. He worried that mic constantly, like a dog does an old shoe, flinging it, following its arcs, swinging on it over the first seats of the public, and Ostermeier also uses it to seal Richard’s fate, appropriately for this beast, in the final scene. Jan Pappelbaum’s set is a sand pit surrounded by scaffolding; the reference is perhaps to cock fighting, which works perfectly with this strutting, aggressive, admit-no-rivals rooster and his insatiable taste for blood sport. When he woos the Lady Anne (Jenny König), his prowling harrying of the mourning widow seem as much of a reason for her submission as his perfectly aimed speech. As that mic cord swung menacingly above the impervious Yorks, it was as if Richard’s dastardly plans had set a Sword of Damocles over their heads, and Eidinger jumped, literally, at every chance to bring it down on them.
Ostermeier, who has been one of the most talented and provocative directors in Europe since he began his career at the Deutsches Theater in the late 1990s, makes a point of challenging audiences to see old work in new ways. His productions of A Doll’s House (as Nora, 2003) and Hedda Gabler (2005) concluded with shocking endings and were infused with blistering commentary on contemporary German society. He has already done a Hamlet in a dirt pit with a rock soundtrack, with Eidinger, who is also a prominent DJ in the Berlin club scene (training that suits him well for his collaborations with Ostermeier; here, he spat out some of Tyler, The Creator’s “Goblin”) in the lead role.
In Richard III, Ostermeier has apparently given Eidinger carte blanche to engage the audience any way he sees fit. The show’s star went frequently off script at the performance I attended, making a fuss over late-comers (seated, unfortunately for them, in the center first row) and calling out those few who left early. He explained his troubles with the swinging mic and led the audience in a crude, taunting refrain directed at Buckingham (Moritz Gottwald). Some of this is part of the scripted performance and Marius von Mayenburg’s adaptation of the text, but Eidinger’s unscripted asides were numerous and long enough and sometimes so puerile (albeit in character for this Richard) that a disgruntled spectator taunted him back with “Idiot!” and Eidinger went looking for the culprit in the seats. It seemed for a moment as if a fight could break out in Row J or on Fulton Street after the show. I don’t know how intentional any of this was, but the effect felt exceedingly clever: not only were we party to Richard’s machinations but, like his enemies he destroys on stage, we were victims of his wit and ire too.
After all of these asides, Eidinger unhesitatingly picked up exactly where he left off. If he glanced at the supertitles (the piece is performed in German but his asides were in English), it was as an ironic nod to the need to continue the play; never did we suppose he needed a prompt to remember his next line. His Richard is not the most frightening one I have seen (Hans Kesting in Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War earns that distinction) but he is a consummate show-off, in the vein of a spoiled teenager who enjoys making the adults in his world writhe with his unpredictable behavior (by show’s end he sports a curious ensemble of underwear, a corset and a neck brace, his face covered in the remains of his dinner). And Eidinger is a consummate performer.
The Schaubühne ensemble absorbed his prima donna antics as if they were par for the course, as they undoubtedly were (the production premiered in 2015). Such is the depth of this troupe that Robert Beyer in the minor roles of Catesby and Margaret was as watchable as König’s prim Anne, Eva Meckbach’s enraged Elizabeth and Thomas Bading’s milquetoast Edward, to whose dread he played a comic counterpoint, even in the role of the doom-saying Margaret (appearing like a beehive-domed generalissima in Florence von Gerkan’s costuming). Ostermeier tightens the tourniquet with a percussive sound track (Thomas Witte on drums but also “O Superman”’s pulsations) and a Grand Guignolesque death rattle for Clarence, then chills things abruptly with two frighteningly cold puppet princes and the unceremonious bag of limbs they become after their murder. There isn’t much room to breathe in this hard-hitting production, but since Eidinger steals all the oxygen, we’re just holding our breath anyway for whatever comes next.
That next is the show’s surprising conclusion, not on the battlefield but in Richard’s tormented subconscious. Lying alone in bed seems a fitting end for this petulantly malicious misfit adolescent who plays with his naked penis and wonders at its size (apparently, it looks smaller onstage) and dares Anne to run him through with his sword as if he’d actually enjoy the rush of feeling metal burst his lungs. It also telescopes the concluding scenes to bring the performance abruptly to its finish. Perhaps in this production that does us the favor of sparing us any allusions to contemporary politics and just embraces the psychological complexity of a serial killer, all the plotting and murders were the show’s true asides and we were only ever waiting for Richard’s one true moment to arrive.