Richard III at the Barbican
One of Shakespeare’s cruellest characters takes on a new, strangely likeable form at the Barbican. Radically reimagined by director Thomas Ostermeier, this production of Richard III by renowned German company Schaubühne extracts the raw essence of the play, namely the exploration of evil in its various shades, and catapults it into a contemporary world of dust and glitter. The plot is unchanged, but it’s adorned with such new and unexpected garments that it feels like a surprise at every turn.
Totally undeterred by hindrances, the throne-aspiring Richard resorts to a long series of unethical methods to fulfil his burning ambition of attaining absolute power. His unpleasant attitude and physical deformity have isolated him from the rest of the family, but he uses his immorality as a tool to always reach one step ahead, where others dare not tread. “Since I cannot prove a lover,” he declares, “I am determined to prove a villain.” He then takes the audience into his confidence through brief mid-scene commentaries deriding the words and actions of his peers.
By adding a comic dimension, Ostermeier shakes up the dynamics. Shouting, swinging by a rope and even rapping obscenities, Richard’s humorous insolence exposes the other characters as hypocritical, unwise or simply weak-willed. The director sets out to do what the protagonist himself does: unashamedly appeal for the understanding of those looking on, presenting evil in the guise of survival. Popular German actor Lars Eidinger gives Richard an appeal that transcends the repulsive demeanour of the character. In fact, he was chosen precisely for his ability to draw sympathy.
A plain set consisting of a wooden structure is enhanced by suggestive lighting and a few key props, such as a hanging microphone that ends up having many different uses. The costumes – suits, elegant dresses, and some fancy evening-wear – seek to disperse any attempt to pin the play to a specific point in time. Part classic, part rock’n’roll, the visual elements reflect the struggle between conformity and uncensored expression. Performed in German with English surtitles, the translation is in prose and mainly content-focussed, but it does to an extent echo Shakespeare’s style.
This is a transgressive, twisted reinterpretation that has its purpose. Ostermeier’s vision is fresh and vivid and Eidinger, a tornado of energy and charisma, carries the production with irresistible boldness as he fully inhabits the role and makes it his own. While the entire cast are excellent in their supportive roles, they principally provide a frame for the protagonist to move around in.
Dynamic, provocative and alluring, this is a must-see for anyone who wants to see Shakespeare as if it were the first time.
Richard III is at the Barbican from 16th until 19th February 2017, for further information or to book visit here.