A few thoughts, no mas. There’s been a lot written about this show and deservedly so. I read a comment the other day by someone reading it who, whilst praising the show, stated that it helped to show that British theatre is fucked. This isn’t the place and I’m not the person to comment on the British theatre debate. The point is that every now and again a show comes along, usually from the continent, (more often than not Germany), which shows up the limitations of the artistic parameters mainstream British theatre (MST(?)) chooses to operate under. Ostermeier’s R3, perhaps like Brecht’s visiting shows, or more recently, Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, would appear to be that show for early 2017.
Richard 3, for all it’s fame, is a difficult play to stage. It’s a paradoxical play. The protagonist is dazzling and charismatic and the rest of the play is stodgy, save for the odd moment of needless violence. The more one watches it the more it seems like the template for the far more sophisticated later tragedy, Macbeth. Richard dominates the play in a way that’s unhealthy. The play will live or die on the lead actor’s performance.
It doesn’t take a theatrical genius to realise this. Ostermeier gives Lars Eidinger’s Richard free rein to make the stage his own. With its sandy surface, it’s more like his playground. He’s given a hanging microphone as a prop, which doubles as a kind of swing. At one point, Eidinger goes flying out over the audience. This is what director and star do brilliantly. The fourth wall is not a wall. (A phrase that could probably be trademarked in this day and age.) The audience is another prop for Richard to employ. Not only does he swing over their heads, he climbs in to the auditorium, he ad-libs, he treats the audience like his followers.
There’s nothing new in breaking the fourth wall. Richard is also given clowns’ shoes, making a none-too-subtle point. Clowning, an art that might pre-date theatre, is all about exploring and bridging the gap between the audience and the stage. According to Shapiro, Shakespeare got rid of Kemp, the company’s best clown, because he was mucking around with the text too much, playing with the audience at the expense of the play. This sort of behaviour is also known as irreverent, and this, it seems to me, is the tonal note which audiences have enjoyed so much, and which British theatre so rarely succeeds in achieving. It’s an immensely enjoyable theatrical experience, from an audience point of view, to feel oneself included in a great work, rather than excluded. To visit the Barbican to soak up culture and discover that this process can be funny and inclusive.
Because, aside from all this, there’s nothing particularly radical about Ostermeier’s staging. The set, sandpit aside, is prosaic. There’s a drummer in public view, off-stage, but whilst this is a nice touch, it’s not ground-breaking. The scenes which lack Richard actually begin to plod, something that’s almost inevitable in this doughy play. (Although the curse of Lady Margaret is nicely subverted). This isn’t a radical staging. What it is a radical re-connect, reconnecting Shakespeare to its pantomimic roots, and doing so without fear of shame or ridicule. When Richard paints his face for the denouement, it reminded me of two things. Brando in Apocalypse Now; and comedia del arte. Rather than soaring into the future, Ostermeier takes Richard back towards his origins, which also happen to be the origins of performance on the European stage. And audiences love it.
(Also worth noting the following observation from Chris Goode in reaction to one critical reaction to the play, suggesting Ostermeier undercooks the play’s political content: “The politics is in the form, chaps, not the content.” In the theatre, content can only ever be political up to a point. It is the form in which that content is presented, the way in which it questions the relationship between audience and stage, which defines the play’s political intentions. An idea which some of the more lauded political playwrights of the contemporary British stage sometimes seem reluctant to engage with.)