Richard III

William Shakespeare, translation and version by Marius von Mayenberg
Schaubühne Berlin
Barbican Theatre

Lars Eidinger Credit: Arno Declai
Thomas Bading, Laurenz Laufenberg, Jenny Konig, Eva Meckbach, Christoph Gawenda and Lars Eidinge Credit: Arno Declai
Ensemble of Richard III Credit: Arno Declai

Schaubühne Berlin's Artistic Director Thomas Ostermeier has built a formidable reputation on the back of a series of wild, rock-influenced contemporary productions that make viewers look at familiar classics, ancient and modern, through fresh eyes.

The German director's take on Richard III, aided by a script created by adaptor Marius von Mayenberg, lives up to that billing. It may lose text and characters along the way but the spirit and essence of the original are rarely sacrificed in doing so.

For 2½ hours, in what looks like an abandoned modern factory, the evening is carried thanks to a bravura, frankly egotistical performance from the larger-than-life, artificially humpbacked Lars Eidinger, dominant in the title role but well supported by an adaptable ensemble.

Emerging from a party following a lengthy exposition, the wannabe King grabs a hanging, illuminated microphone that becomes his friend and confidant, receiving and broadcasting his intimate thoughts, commencing with observations about the winter of discontent.

Although these largely convey the thoughts of Shakespeare, sometimes the text drifts into more modern language, while at the opening Barbican performance, a stray, undisciplined hearing aid so infuriated Eidinger that he almost abandoned the performance rather than meeting Richmond and his character's destiny.

The making of this production is Eidinger's ability to show the manifold aspects of a man who needs to charm Anne into becoming his Queen, but still keep an acute sense of humour as he manipulates the powers that be. In doing so, he slowly ascends to the throne over the bodies of loved ones and supporters as often as foes, before finally succumbing to guilt and, on this occasion, an invisible but potent foe on a nightmare battlefield.

Trying to create this play with a cast of only nine (plus an onstage drummer and two Bunraku puppets) is a challenge and means that some scenes are either cut down or completely excised but somehow, such is the power of Ostermeier's vision and Eidinger's charisma that this ceases to be important.

In this German language version, even with the effort of interpreting surtitles at the same time as action, Richard III is gripping, funny and chilling in equal proportions. Anyone who can get to the Barbican in the next few days is guaranteed an unusual but rewarding experience. Failing that, this production may pop up elsewhere some time, having already played the Edinburgh International Festival and various venues scattered across Europe.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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