April 3, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
Richard III (Schaubühne) @ L’Opéra Grand Avignon (webstream)
Everything Richard needs hangs from the ceiling. At the end of a long cable, a combined microphone, video camera and light dangle from the ceiling. With this single device, Lars Eidinger’s Richard conducts his rise to power. It’s a combination of personal diary and megaphone, a piece of tech to which only he has access and which connects him to something above the level of the stage; it’s deeply private and yet part of his public persona. And especially in this 2015 televised version of Thomas Ostermeier’s production from L’Opéra Grand Avignon, screen director Hannes Rossacher utilises the tiny camera on this microphone to get intimate with a Richard who fragments and remakes himself before our eyes, haunted and haunting, and far too close for comfort.
From the opening, this is Eidinger’s show, though his performance works throughout in concert with the live drumming of Thomas Witte, the two offering the most constant stage presences of the show. Witte’s rhythms, solos, and driving beats propel Richard’s opening soliloquy, delivered at the tail end of a smug procession of the Yorks onto the stage, and which continues as members of the court giggle and strip and flirt around him. The impotence of this Richard is one of his driving motivations, his disgust at the physical contact of those around him informing the snarl of his soliloquy, delivered closely into the microphone as he lumbers around the stage.
Eidinger’s performance is shaped partly by the artificial hump strapped onto his back and his loping gait, but this isn’t an exploration of disability so much as a reminder of Eidinger’s physical presence as Richard throughout. He’s very mobile, stooping as he drags himself around, but not obviously disadvantaged in any activity. Indeed, his speed and size make him a threatening and imposing force on the stage when he wants to be. But the hunch works with the microphone to enhance the intimacy between Richard and the audience, not so much through the direct contact (although there is plenty of this) but through the way he curls himself around the microphone and (certainly via the close-ups of the screen broadcast) invites the viewer close into his personal space, as if privileged to hear his whispers. It’s a fascinating contrast, as Eidinger’s expansive physical performance and intimate use of the microphone complement rather than contradict one another, bringing the audience into his headspace but simultaneously projecting his headspace onto the world; an effect reflected further by the screen broadcast superimposing the video projections of the act breaks directly onto the screen, allowing incidental images to consume the artwork entirely.
Richard’s modus operandi is one of controlled exposure, a method made most overt in the extraordinary wooing of Lady Anne (Jenny König). This begins formally, with König weeping openly over Henry’s coffin and snapping angrily at Richard as he loiters at the side. But it’s when Anne spits upon Richard that the tide turns. Richard’s performance of devastation and hurt at the act, even beginning to cry, affects Anne, who remains resolute but is shocked at his sudden admission of vulnerability. And Richard immediately doubles down on this by stripping himself completely naked and kneeling in the sand of the stage with his sword pointed at his bare chest. This abasement of himself renders him visibly vulnerable, the exposure seeming to give Anne confidence by contrast; it’s a complete commitment to his performance of contrition that is – after many times seeing this scene – finally compelling as a ploy. And as Anne relieves him of the sword, it is she who leans over the coffin and kisses him, taking a power that she feels has been given to her, and in doing so giving herself to Richard. It’s a mesmerising and convincing scene.
The power of this scene makes it doubly disappointing that the women are so peripheral to this production. While Richard’s rise to power is played out with surprisingly few cuts, and lingering attention to the detail in the scenes where he is ‘persuaded’ to take the crown, the ‘complaint’ scenes (as well as Richard’s mother) are absent or heavily cut; Anne herself mmostly disappears after the wooing scene; Margaret is played (wonderfully well, but for no apparent reason) by a man (Robert Beyer); and while Carolin Haupt is excellent as Elizabeth, her scenes too are severely truncated. Part of this is understandable in a production so focused on Richard’s psychological state that he ends up battling himself in the finale (of which more anon), but it’s a shame that the early promise of the electric dynamic between Richard and Anne doesn’t lead anywhere. The most powerful presence of a woman is Beyer’s Margaret, who in her one scene stands on high upon the gantry above the stage and (supported by an over-the-shoulder camera) casts down her curses regally and with dignity, before walking calmly out of the play.
Richard’s victims are not accorded dignity. Clarence (Christoph Gawenda) is awarded a particularly bad death. Awoken rudely by the murderers (Beyer and Thomas Bading), and denied even the description of his dream, Clarence is revealed as naked under his flimsy blanket and straddled by the two men as he is stabbed and choked to death in the dirt, bleeding out while a ceiling camera captures his exposed, splayed body on the floor. And the response of Edward (Bading) to this is to hurl himself bodily from his chair towards the suitor who begs for justice just after Edward has learned of his brother’s death. The reduction of Richard’s brothers to prone bodies on the floor (an act mirrored by Elizabeth as she enters in mourning from Edward’s deathbed) is notable next to his own stooped performance, and is played out further in the murder of the princes. These are presented as two uncanny life-size puppets (voiced by Gawenda and Laurenz Laufenberg) who are frankly incredibly creepy, and whose artificial appearance perhaps inadvertently invites us to see them through Richard’s eyes as not entirely human. However, their status as objects allows them to be brought to Richard as broken bodies, laid out in a traumatic display of violence before him.
The production’s middle section allows the rest of the ensemble to have their moments, especially Moritz Gottwald as Buckingham. Buckingham is a somewhat anonymous figure who slowly emerges during Margaret’s cursing, and who quickly aligns himself with Richard. But from an early stage, Buckingham is unsure about his role in all this. As he escorts Rivers and Dorset (Laufenberg and Gawenda) to their deaths, their words chime with him, and he takes a moment alone onstage to breathe and process things before following him out; after Hastings (Sebastian Schwarz) is condemned to death, Buckingham again lingers to look on the man he has helped to kill. While Catesby (Beyer) hovers with a less conscience-stricken air, Buckingham is clearly in two minds and vulnerable.
Richard sees this vulnerability. During the long scene of persuading London to crown Richard, Buckingham takes centre-stage and holds forth with confident rhetoric and stage presence. Richard, trapped on the gantry between two priests, can only look down, and the effect of the camera close-ups is to suggest that Richard is rethinking his relationship with the man who is bringing him to power. The scene is beautifully stage-managed, with Richard even leaving things almost too long to call back the citizens, resulting in Catesby screeching comically for them to come back. But Buckingham’s presence is a threat, and so during the coronation scene, Richard turns the tables on Buckingham’s public presentation of himself. Pulling down the microphone and, for the first time in the production, offering it to someone other than himself, Richard demands that Buckingham speak into it while giving his answer about the murder of the princes. A sweating Buckingham, put on the spot, is unable to give a satisfactory answer, and is left shoved to the side as Richard gets nasty.
The dangerous unpredictability that accompanied Eidinger’s Hamlet is less obvious here, at least at first. Richard has his moments, including an English-language rap early in the production and a deeply unsettling lick of his whole hand before turning the page of the Bible he is holding as a prop for public appearances, but for the most part Eidinger holds back until Richard comes to power. But once he does, all bets are off. With the crown on his head, and wearing a corset and neck brace as his ceremonial wear, he slams his plate of food into Buckingham’s face to disgrace him, and licks and kisses Ratcliff (Schwarz) as Ratcliff agrees to kill the princes. And following his sight of his dead nephews, Richard retreats further into himself. Eating his dinner by himself, he seems unable to swallow; his food burbles back out of his mouth; he seems frozen, unable to complete normal human functions. And then, he puts his hand into the white stuff (mayonnaise, I think, though the material hardens like plaster) and smears it completely over his face, transforming him into a ghastly clown. Wearing this mask, he woos Elizabeth for her daughter (planting some of the mess on her face) and lays himself down to sleep, but Richard as he has hitherto been is gone.
And so to a climax which sees Richard deeply alone. He is haunted by the ghosts, who stand above him and take the microphone, an important shift in the power relations of the stage, speaking directly into the camera so their faces are projected onto the back of the stage, looming over him. But when he wakes up he is alone, and he fights alone. ‘My horse’ is spoken in English (for no obvious reason), but the enemies he swings his sword at are in his head. Eidinger flails about the stage, shouting against Stanley, against Richmond, but only stabbing at empty shades. His fight goes on and on, he receiving imagined hurts, until he finally lies himself down, his foot snarled up in the cable of his microphone. And at long last, the apparatus of his own rise takes him. The cable is pulled up, dragging Richard up by his foot so he is left, dangling over the stage, hoisted literally by his own petard and displayed for all to see. Except there’s no-one there.
Thanks to the live-tweeters, especially Susan Anderson, Kim Gauthier, David Jays and Daniel Yabut, who shared this stream.