Thomas Ostermeier’s inventive Richard III starring Lars Eidinger made its US debut at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival this month. Even in German with English ad-libs, this is Shakespeare through and through.
“You missed the big speech!”, exclaimed Lars Eidinger’s Richard III to a latecomer taking his seat. “It was at the beginning, not like ‘To Be or Not to Be’.” Shakespeare’s most delicious villain always breaks the fourth wall, but Eidinger was going off book, in English, in the middle of a German production. In director Thomas Ostermeier’s hands, translating Shakespeare’s text into German frees him from rigid adherence to Shakespeare’s words, giving the actors licence to play. If this Richard can and will say anything, we never know what he’ll do next, even if we know what Shakespeare has written. We are as blindsided by Richard’s actions and whims as the people around him.This Richard doesn’t just break the fourth wall — he plays to the audience, persuading us to think like he does.Click To Tweet
Ostermeier’s production opens not with Richard delivering the “big speech”, but with a decadent, orgiastic party, complete with confetti and rock music. Richard is the last character to reach the stage, trailing behind his brothers in their procession down the aisle. It’s a key insight into Richard’s character: he appears to be following, when in fact he’s in everyone’s blind spot. They can’t see past that limp and hunched back that slows him down just a little, but he is literally staying behind their backs. Only once the celebrations have calmed down does Eidinger whisper “Now is the winter of our discontent” into a microphone dangling from the ceiling, as if he’s the emcee of Cabaret.
But just as Cabaret makes the audience complicit in the desperate escapism of the Kit Kat Club, Eidinger’s Richard makes us complicit as he revels in his villainy. This Richard doesn’t just break the fourth wall — he plays to the audience, persuading us (and other characters) to think like he does without ever spelling it out. When he strips down to woo Lady Anne over her husband’s coffin and it works, he keeps turning to us as if to say, “Are you seeing this?” “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” he asks us incredulously. When Queen Margaret arrives to issue dark prophecies, Richard turns away and walks up the aisle of the auditorium, seating himself in the audience and turning to his neighbour to point at Margaret in mockery. Before we know it, we’ve ceased to take Margaret seriously, and so has everyone else at court.
Of course, Ostermeier subtly helps Richard’s argument every step of the way. By casting a man in drag as Margaret, everything about her becomes stagey and performative; it’s not a big leap to take Richard’s side that she’s ridiculous. By turning the two young princes, whom Richard hopes to send to their deaths, into puppets, Ostermeier makes Richard’s actions seem less evil. We don’t have to watch Richard cross that final line of executing children; he’s only executing wooden toys. Keeping the majority of the deaths offstage also makes it easier for us to join in on Richard’s triumphs, relishing the rewards and ignoring the consequences.
Ostermeier’s production is the rare one to address the realities of living with a disability: Richard has found a way not simply to manage his hunchback and limp, but to use them as a cover. Eidinger’s Richard sensibly looks for every opportunity he can to sit down — something I’ve never seen an actor do before, even though it’s completely realistic. But Eidinger uses this as a power move. Eidinger doesn’t orbit others on the outskirts of the stage, like Ralph Fiennes did last year; by sitting down, Eidinger forces others to come to him. It’s also why Eidinger’s Richard is one of the first I’ve seen who actually seems to be a part of the family we meet. That those around him mistake his stasis for helplessness is their fatal mistake.When Eidinger’s Richard goes off-book, he’s abandoning the letter of the play but keeping the spirit.Click To Tweet
In Shakespeare’s text, Richard’s downfall happens because his newfound security as king makes him unwilling to kowtow to others’ needs. Isn’t the point of power that you can relax and stop sucking up? But in Ostermeier’s Richard III, Richard doesn’t just neglect the people at court who helped him to the crown; he neglects us. For nearly an hour, he forgets to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. But the higher Richard rises, the lonelier he becomes onstage, until there’s almost nobody else left but Catesby. By the time Richard realizes he still needs his audience, enlisting us to help him to humiliate Buckingham, it’s too late. We’ve become detached and started judging him.
When performing Shakespeare in English, a production’s liberties are often limited to interpretation and cuts. Attempts to stray from Shakespeare’s language tend to be disastrous: mere mortals can’t hope to replicate Shakespeare’s verse, and any modern dialogue additions stick out like a sore thumb. But when Marius von Mayenburg and Ostermeier translated Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century English into modern German, it becomes easier to stray beyond the sacred text without raising eyebrows. When Eidinger’s Richard goes off-book, he’s abandoning the letter of the play but keeping the spirit.Ostermeier treats Shakespeare’s text the way jazz musicians play standards: a structure to follow and riff on.Click To Tweet
Ostermeier treats Shakespeare’s text the way jazz musicians play standards: not a formula to be rigidly adhered to, but a structure to follow and riff on, each performance finding something new. Just as English-language Shakespeare productions will foreground only certain themes, Ostermeier picks up on Richard’s need for an audience, and then pushes this to its extreme conclusion. As Richard’s rise to power isolates him, the final battle becomes not with Richmond and those seeking to destroy him, but with his own demons. This Richard wanted an audience of confidantes. But by the time he’s seated on his throne, he’s lost our adoration, and the court has thinned. Excising Richmond entirely, Ostermeier’s final showdown finds Richard sword-fighting with thin air. Richard may go mad, but Ostermeier has not: even in German with English ad-libs, this is Shakespeare through and through.