Schaubühne Berlin’s Richard III is a bold interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest anti-hero, but is ultimately undone by a disjointed, lack-lustre presentation.
It begins with a bang. Streamers explode out onto the stage, and our troupe of soon-to-be-murdered or betrayed royals spill into the theatre to a pumping bass-line evoking the best and seediest sort of Berlin nightclub. They’ve won the war, and damn it, they’re celebrating. As they stream up and offstage into a night of revelry, Richard slimes through the iconic ‘winter of our discontent’ speech and plots their doom to much effect.
Lars Eidinger’s portrayal of Richard is as strong and complex as the role demands. He is disgusting. He is broken. He is seductive and nefarious throughout. The swinging boxing announcer’s microphone that he grips to address the audience practically drips with his malevolence.
Yet, after the opening scene, the play lacks. Very little of the spectacle onstage lives up to this first moment of pounding celebration. The rest of the play is reasonably stark, with other characters’ portrayals not living up to the grotesque machinations of Eidinger’s Richard. The music, though, is strong, with live drummer (Thomas Witte) beside the stage smashing out a Nine Inch Nails-esque soundtrack from Nils Ostendorf. It is foreboding and well mirrors Richard’s evil streak.
The female cast, in particular, feels let down here. Lady Anne (Jenny König) and Elizabeth (Eva Meckbach), two complex characters in their own right come off as damp towels, speedily seduced or convinced to abide by Richard’s will without much real consideration, nor revisiting throughout the show. Perhaps the strongest female role, Margaret, who utters the curse that foreshadows Richard’s downfall and doom, is played by Robert Beyer in a swiftly forgotten caricature from the top of the stage.
And of course, we must discuss the language. Richard III is performed in German, with occasional asides in English, and an English surtitle screen in the middle of the stage, which is partly blocked by the winding microphone cord hanging before it. Proficient German speakers will surely enjoy not being encumbered by trying to follow the translations on a partially obscured screen and watch the action at once. It is a confusing dance the audience’s eyes must perform, particularly when much of the accompanying text is still in Shakespeare’s metre and does not always follow the same rhythm or emphasis placed on the actors’ spoken word. This is a harsh criticism to make, but put simply, this impinges on the audience’s ability to fully immerse themselves and enjoy the show.
The audience tries though. Eidinger’s charisma is infectious, and the crowd is genuinely rooting for his Richard to win. One memorable moment where Eidinger convinces the audience to heckle his failing companion Buckingham is deviously fun.
There are further touches to this production that heighten the grotesque story with gothic excellence, such as the Prince twins’ ventriloquist doll portrayal or Clarence’s gurgling murder carried out by bumbling black-clad stocking-masked fools. Yet, many moments of excellence do not an excellent play make.
Richard III was performed at Her Majesty ‘s Theatre on Friday, March 3 2017 for the Adelaide Festival and continues until Thursday, March 9.
Photography: Tony Lewis