Adelaide Festival 2017 Theatre Review: Richard III

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What: Richard III

Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre

Schaubühne Berlin’s production of Richard III, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, and starring Lars Eidinger as the treacherous yet charismatic Richard, presents William Shakespeare’s tale of unbridled madness and the murderous path to power, entirely in German.

The action unfolds on a pit of sand that is quickly strewn with festive streamers, but by the end becomes a devil’s playground, smeared with human blood and folly. Richard, played by Eidinger, is hunchbacked, crippled, and devious. Aspiring to the throne, he remorselessly commits a number of murders to become King of England, showing, along the way, his penchant for wooing women and mastery of charming an audience. Eidinger radiates charisma, talented yet carefree, behaving in blood-curdling ways and then innocently shrugging his shoulders. Breaking from his native German for an aside in English is at first unexpected, then witty, then uproarious. His Richard is as likeable as it is loathsome.

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A single microphone hangs in the centre of the stage and amplifies Richard’s asides and soliloquies so that, his lips pressed against it, whispered depravities fill the air around him. The microphone also contains a camera and projects shots of Richard’s face that are disturbingly close. Along with thunderous drumming by Thomas Witte, Richard’s aggressive song and dance, and the kaleidoscopic flash of lights, this microphone helps to convey all the madness, ecstasy and sound of a rock concert.

In place of the children Edward V and Richard, who are slaughtered, Ostermeier opts for puppets. Watching puppets behave ridiculously and then ape each other is very funny. Ostermeier sacrifices gravity by using puppets; distancing us from child-slaughter, he reduces the terribleness of Richard’s crimes. 

Although I loved the actors’ engagement with the audience overall, I felt slightly uncomfortable being encouraged, along with everyone else, to shout at the pie-covered Buckingham, ‘You look like shit. Have you eaten pussy today?’. Looking around at the audience members above and beside me, many of whom were octogenarians, my cheeks ripened like strawberries. But perhaps I’m being tediously strait-laced here.

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This is not the first time in recent years that Shakespeare has been performed in a foreign tongue at the Adelaide Festival. Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, a trilogy of Shakespeare’s classical plays, performed in Dutch, played at the Festival Theatre’s Auditorium in 2014. Numerous screens on stage at that production boldly projected subtitles so that audiences could in one gaze absorb both action and meaning. But Richard III’s subtitles flashed on a single, diminutive screen in the backdrop. My eyes, as if following a rally of racquets, swung hypnotically from screen to characters, characters to screen, attempting to understand everything and interpret language with gesture. This was initially disconcerting. Larger subtitles, or additional screens around the stage, may have resolved my ocular conflict.

Richard III was nevertheless superb, full of dread and laughter and intrigue, offering a glimpse of the opportunities of technology fused with live music, designed around the maniacal, beguiling portrait of a tyrant.

4 out of 5 stars

Daniel McLean

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