RICHARD III, Schaubühne Theatre Company, Berlin, directed by Thomas Ostermeier

by Jennifer Bryce


This Shakespearean play was performed at the Adelaide Festival in German with English surtitles. The man who becomes king is the villain – deformed, from having been born prematurely. It is the time of the Wars of the Roses. And, to pay back the world for his deformity, Richard seethes with malevolence. He slaughters members of his family, including his two young nephews, so that he can become king. Henry, on the Lancastrian side, fights Richard for the throne at the Battle of Bosworth. The night before the battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of the people he has killed. He himself is killed in battle (‘My kingdom for a horse’) and Henry succeeds to the throne. The play is a study of the Machiavellian, psychopathic Richard.

Richard III microphone

When one attends a Shakespearean play, it is as much to hear the poetry of the language as it is for the story. With this performance in German, it would seem that we were immediately at a disadvantage. But this was not the case. Lars Eidinger becomes Richard so completely that I hardly missed that poetry. Just as psychopathy and grasping ambition is timeless, so was this play. The set was suitably gruesome. An early scene is a kind of ominous disco party. Richard communicates his intent to the audience in a cryptic way, often by means of a pendulous microphone with camera attached. Early in the performance this device broke down. Eidinger seemed to almost relish the intrusion into the flow of the drama – while it was being repaired, he cracked a few jokes with the audience (in English), barely out of character. There was nudity. There was urinating on stage. There was an attempt to get the audience to repeat, like a jingle: ‘You look like shit. Have you eaten pussy today?’ Most didn’t respond, but apparently we were better than Berlin audiences. Later, I learned that this somewhat confronting question is Eidinger’s way of revering an actor or director (I’m not sure which), now dead, whom he greatly admired. In memory of this person, Eidinger insinuates the question into his performances. In some ways, the play being in German was useful – such asides, obviously not written by Shakespeare, were in English.

The whole play revolved around Lars Eidinger – Richard III, as it should have. The other actors were very good, but it is Eidinger’s performance that will stay with me. The final scene is particularly memorable. For a moment we see the dead king dangling from a meat hook, centre stage. Then all goes black.

Richard III final scene

As a part of the Adelaide Festival, David Marr interviewed Lars Eidinger (whose English is excellent). I got the impression that there isn’t a large gulf between Eidinger off the stage and Eidinger on the stage. The interview was held on the Palais, a replica pleasure-boat on the Torrens River, disappointingly not very much like the original 1920s version. When Eidinger approached the stage and there was thunderous applause, he lurched to one side as though he were going to throw himself overboard.  Talking of acting, he said, ‘The fictional moment can have so much more reality than reality’, and he mentioned the importance of mirrors to Shakespeare – to look in the mirror is a truthful moment. How many of us have the courage to sit alone and stare at our image? For Eidinger on stage, communication with the audience is an essential – the collective consciousness in the theatre – Eidinger needs to access the energies of all members of the audience.

Richard III mirror

An inevitable question was, how does Shakespeare stand up to being performed in German? I was aware that some of the rhythm of the poetry had, inevitably, been lost, but the psychology, the drama of Richard III was most definitely present. Eidinger said that Shakespeare is so strong, you can never destroy it. But then he amazed me and moved me greatly by saying that he wished that the German language no longer existed. He was referring to Nazi Germany and the fact that Hitler was schooled in drama for declaiming his speeches. Eidinger, at the age of 41, still feels a responsibility for what his forebears did. It seems that he has no love for the German language.

Eidinger had referred a couple of times to the fact that we were a rather elderly audience. He said that back in Berlin his audiences are usually younger and female. I get the feeling, he said, that they are there for my body. But you, he said, are here for my brain. I was certainly there for his brain! This man, who said, ‘the reason for living is dying’, also has a sense of humour.