Richard III stops the play for a moment to ask an audience member in the front row quite loudly, “Are you dying or sleeping?” It hardly feels like the fourth wall has crumbled since Richard spends so much of the play talking directly to the audience anyway. In Thomas Ostermeier’s glitter cannon and percussion-heavy production of Richard III most of Richard’s monologues are delivered through a retro microphone hanging off of a bungee cord. Richard clutches it and conspiratorially whispers his plans and machinations to us. You never know what might set him off throughout and his sudden inquisition of the front row fits his mercurial personality.
This production from director Thomas Ostermeier uses a German adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III by Marius von Mayenburg. Richard (Lars Eidinger) lumbers onto the sandy stage in a white t-shirt lacking the suave grace of the rest of the royal family looking like New Year’s Eve revelers in their tuxedos and ball gowns. Richard sneers at the idea of peace under his brother King Edward (Thomas Bading). This is not a man who thrives in the quiet. Like the rattling snare drums and thumping beats of this production, Richard is a man of thrashing action, violence, and manipulation. He proceeds to knock down his rivals or inveigle his enemies who capitulate to him—whether that’s his brother Clarence (Christoph Gawenda) who he has executed or Lady Anne (Jenny König), widowed daughter-in-law to the late King Henry VI, who he beguiles into marrying him. Often times he preys on the weaknesses of his foes, convincing them he too is flawed in similar ways—he approaches King Edward’s skeptical wife Elizabeth (Eva Meckbach) by suggesting he can change as much as she has changed from commoner to queen.
Ostermeier’s production relies on an aggressive posture. He uses visceral materials—blood, food, mud—that collect, congeal, and accumulate in a sickening manner on stage. Confetti shoots into the audience, the drums (played with thundering fury by Thomas Witte) rumble and crash, and Richard marauds through the theatre aisles. He swings from his microphone bungee cable towards the audience and at times bats the microphone towards us with menacing anger. At one point he starts rapping Tyler the Creator’s Goblin (“The devil doesn’t wear Prada. I’m clearly in a white fucking tee.”).
Pressed up against this open hostility is an unexpected undercurrent of fabricated sensitivity. Richard strips naked to woo Lady Anne. He presents himself with maximum vulnerability. He offers her his naked torso, a sword, and the choice to gut him should she wish (he has killed her husband and her father-in-law). When she spits on him, he melts into tears. There is nothing he will not do or say to win his battles and he is dangerously convincing.
Richard’s manner of dress evolves—from sloppy t-shirt to slick tuxedos to dazzling sequins as he blends in more with his family. But once he becomes king he dons a corset and a neck brace and simple underpants. He is twisting his body to conform to expectations—building himself an erect posture where he has none. Although this costuming choice with so much visible flesh suggests an exposure of weakness now that Richard has finally reached his goal. Ostermeier plays on this openness as he stages the final battle Richard makes against his ghosts.
Things get a little repetitive with Richard and his microphone business. Sometimes a camera is used on the microphone and it projects Richard’s face on the wall behind him. Those projections only occasionally come across clearly and the impact is minimal. Sound design becomes increasingly unstable alongside the character. Late in the play, a shrill, incessant beeping persists for scene after scene in the background. The visual panoply of the production starts to lose some of its initial luster by the end (atmospheric projections of disturbed bird flocks can only be trod out so many times) although I was a fan of the sonic battering throughout. Richard and his disruptive and destabilizing nature are more at home in this rock and roll racket than in the ponderous silence of many productions. Frankly it’s a lot of fun—never knowing where this unpredictable production might go.
Ostermeier’s volatile environment is aided further by Eidinger’s entrancing performance. He woos us (as much as Anne) with his maniacal grin and direct gaze. His magnetism is difficult to resist. He’s the bad boy you know you should want nothing to do with, but cannot take your eyes off. Gawping while chewing mashed potatoes with an open mouth he is repulsive. He makes execution plans in nearly the same breath as announcing the lunch menu. He is monstrous. But in a flash, we catch a flicker in his eyes of excitement, intrigue and confession, and are drawn in once again.