‘Naked villainy’ is right; Lars Eidinger’s Richard takes his words quite literally. Kneeling in front of her, he reveals his naked body to Anne, with her dead husband’s casket between them and her sword pointed at his heart. Yes, it’s awkward, and an admittedly bizarre tactic to use when trying to woo someone, but it’s strangely successful. It’s confrontational, direct and raw: a staged striptease that’s utterly riveting.
Much of Schaubuhne Berlin’s stunning Richard III toys with the idea of ‘stripped’ politics. The nation-state surrounding Richard is peripheral, and Eidinger is placed firmly centre stage. The coronation is a minimal affair, and the court seem to slip away as he clamours his way to the crown. Even the two boys, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, are mere puppets. The ensemble are superb (Thomas Bading delivers a hilariously apathetic Edward), but this show is all about Richard.
And his performance is a wicked one. With English surtitles above the stage, Eidinger slithers through Marius von Mayenberg’s German translation of the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech interjected by Nils Ostendorf’s grunge anthem. When he reaches the line, “I am determined to play the villain”, Eidinger switches to English and starts from the beginning, shouting above the heavy drums. In the centre hangs a microphone Richard uses to embody a rockstar, rapper, comedian, and ringleader. It also lights his face, films him, and serves as a harness.
If he is destined to play the villain, this Richard is going to enjoy it. The idea of predestination, a central theme in Richard III, is interpreted here through the relationship with Shakespeare’s text. Eidinger’s Richard is aware of his lines before he says them, knows the game before he’s played it. And so for him and Director Thomas Ostermeier, it’s an experiment in contortion. Eidinger muscles his way through Tyler the Creator verses and Nik Kershaw anthems; he shouts at the audience while Laurie Anderson’s O Superman plays monotonously in the background. Entire vignettes exist outside of Shakespeare’s text. The game is to push the textual restrictions, to stretch confines, and to provoke parameters.
Perhaps the projections on the backdrop feel a bit unnecessary, but all the elements combined evoke a feeling of unpredictability and disorientation. Even Jan Pappelbaum’s clever set feels itself as if it’s falling into the audience. The stage is raked downwards at a steep pitch, and the microphone/camera/light/harness holds Richard as he swings into the crowd. The blurring of audience/stage, of text/performance, makes us lose our bearings and we begin to drink the Richard kool-aid.
So we chuckle when he mocks us. We laugh as Clarence dies a blisteringly long death, choking on his own blood. We, like Anne, are wooed. It is not only a strikingly stunning performance, it is also one thoroughly rooted in play and provocation. Here, Richard is a bouffon – a clown who gets off on eliciting a reaction no matter the response. With his hunch accessorized by a corset and neck brace, he forces his audience to repeat, “I have not tasted pussy tonight”.
And while I need not make the glaring comparisons with a contemporary politician who also enjoys the word pussy, and whose late-night tweeting seems specifically designed to prompt gasps, it’s important to remember that this Richard, while seemingly a showman, is also a statesman. His political dexterity lies in using confrontational rhetoric to get what he wants, and his microphone is a vessel through which he reveals himself to us. It is a medium (or media) that allows him to connect directly to his followers and execute his best performance.
While disrobed of its explicit political framework, Ostermeier’s Richard III is a deep reflection on the politics of performance and performances within politics. This Richard is not a portrait of villainy but a performance of it. And with that performance he gains the flexibility to transgress, to ensnare, and to take power. He’s very, very good at it. But perhaps what is scariest is the absence of any further plan, of anything beyond playing for the laugh. As the payoff lessens, and as Richard finds more ways to entertain (painting his face white, filming himself, etc.), it is the enjoyment of the performance itself that brings him insidiously to his own end.
Richard III was on at the Barbican. Click here for more details.