Richard III, Schaubühne at the Barbican

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

There’s nothing more frustrating than a really good piece of theatre with zero diversity. I almost feel guilty for loving Ostermeier’s and van Hove’s ensembles. The acting standard is so high but the fact that this is some of the greatest theatre is so white shows us that diverse casting is a struggle we have yet to win.

There are only two women out of nine actors in Richard III. Margaret is even played by a male actor (to great effect, but still galling). The production displays disability as artifice (Eidinger as Richard wears a cushion strapped to his shoulder) but the idea isn’t fully fleshed out. I’m still not sure whether to take the cynical approach and view it as the only acceptable way of an able-bodied actor playing Richard or accept the idea as a clever way of representing the semi-truths of history in Shakespeare’s play. Goold tried to make a clever joke about Richard’s spine in the opening car park scene of his Richard III. This works better, but it isn’t perfect.

Anyway: I’ve made my point.

 

Ostermeier’s talent as a director of Shakespeare is being able to see through all the confusing Thees and Thous to what’s really going on. He offers new insights into plays that have been directed a thousand times. But he isn’t just good at piecing through individual scenes and speeches and being able to pin down what’s actually going on. He can step back and look at the wider picture. His talent doesn’t just lie in his ability to direct actors but to use sets, lighting, sound, costume and video to craft an atmosphere in a theatre. Richard’s paranoia towards the end of the play is emphasised by a series of irregular chimes sounding around the theatre. At first they sound like iPhone text tones. Eidinger even looks up, as if to say: turn that off – NOW. The irregular chimes continue, increasingly sounding less and less like iPhones and more like beeps.

Ostermeier’s Richard is also insanely metatheatrical. Theatre, for once, feels properly alive, and dependent on its audience. I’ve lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen where the audience not being there would have changed nothing.

I imagine Ostermeier’s approach as being fairly similar to the one van Hove must have taken directing Kings of War. But Ostermeier throws subtle political machinations out the window in favour of a blown-up, larger than life version of Richard. And I’m 100% OK with that. Kings of War is about power. It’s mostly long scenes with lots of people sitting around talking, occasionally interspersed with some cool video or electric guitar. The political machinations are subtle. It’s actors’ theatre. Not that this isn’t actors’ theatre – it’s just different. Ostermeier doesn’t use as many video projections as van Hove, but when he does, the purpose isn’t to enable you to see something offstage, or an actor who would be otherwise subsumed by the sprawling set. It’s to convey the darkness of the piece, the lack of clarity or sight. Is there a murderer there? We don’t know cos all we can see is Eidinger’s character, charismatic and awesome. The use of video in V.iii (the ghost scene) is almost evocative of characters who film themselves in supernatural horror films.

This is a play about excess: excess of idleness and excess of evil. So every directorial decision reflects that excess, that overblown charisma. But every moment is also carefully judged and constructed. It’s difficult to find a single fault in this production. Everything fits so beautifully. Clarence’s request before his death for ‘a cup of wine’ is realised in the watery, almost wine-like blood that spills out of him and dribbles over the sandy floor of the stage. The whole play is set on a semi-circular stage, a sort of mock-up Globe (not dissimilar to the set of Icke’s Mary Stuart) with a walkway above. Ostermeier knows how to use visual levels and does so beautifully. When Margaret enters in I.iii to lambast her ‘wrangling pirates’, she does so from above. She shouts them down, criticising each one in turn, then exits. It gives the other characters the opportunity to exchange beleaguering looks (Ostermeier’s production has a lot of laughs). And it gives a tone to her character I’ve never seen before. Every idea is unlike anything I know. Ostermeier’s theatre is properly exciting.

And then there are the beautifully freaky child puppets, used to represent the Princes of Wales and York. Puppets are all these children are to Richard. And portraying them as puppets doesn’t reduce Richard’s crime at all but instead emphasises the air of unrealness about the whole thing.

This is by no means everything. Christ, that final image of Eidinger hanging from the mic that swings above the stage throughout the performance. Or the sheer novelty of seeing Richard swing round the theatre on the same mic. And the ingenuity of having Richard naked in that scene with Lady Anne. It’s all so good and so much better than I can express.

Favourite line: ‘You look like shit. Have you eaten pussy today?’

UPDATE: someone has uploaded the whole play to youtube. If the link doesn’t work, it’s because it got taken down (again).

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