Richard III | Schaubühne Berlin

Hong Kong Cultural Centre | December 2016

Thomas Ostermeier’s theatrical career began with the radical ‘in-yer-face’ style, staging works by Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane with violent intimacy. His recent work with the Schaubühne has gravitated towards more classical texts such as Ibsen and Shakespeare and older patrons are no longer in danger of fainting during performances. It would be all too easy to accuse him (as he once accused older directors) of becoming irrelevant, and to judge Richard III as less radical in the context of his earlier work. I think this would be an unfair interpretation, especially given Ostermeier’s evident self-awareness about the contradictions within institutionalised theatre. His Richard III is politically charged and makes a strong point without making crass direct references to current events. This is as relevant an interpretation of the play as I have seen; perhaps not as viscerally shocking as we might expect, but shocking in the way we are seduced by it.

Ostermeier positions himself as being what we might jokingly call ‘post-postdramatic’ – that is, for him postdramatic theatre has become the new normal and he sees his own current work as moving away from it.

“As soon as it became the majority discourse, performance and postdramatic theatre lost their power to be emancipatory. I therefore very deliberately call for a provocative battle on this crucial point.” – Thomas Ostermeier 1

It is clear that while his work is inspired by the work of people like Meyerhold, Brecht, Brook and Stein, he does not consider his approach a return to tradition; rather he sees dramatic theatre as a means of expression that still has room for progression and development. Ostermeier does not consider himself a ‘auteur’ whose visual stylistic trademarks overwhelm individual productions (naming no names). We should not approach the show expecting a visual spectacle, but rather an ensemble piece exploring how a dramatic classical text can become progressive – both artistically and politically.

The direction in which Ostermeier has chosen to take the play allows us to unabashedly follow Richard through his story, egging him on relatively unrepentantly. This is a revealing interpretation of the text, and one which wouldn’t be possible without the charisma and skill of Lars Eidinger. With the changes to the ending, this puts the play in a very different light, and shows something much more insidious and alarming than the alternative of a purely evil Richard who is justly killed. The evil is not in Richard’s own scheming, but rather the ease with which others allow themselves to be persuaded to his cause – it surprises even him! In the end it is not an external justice which puts an end to his success, but his own inability to cope with it. Shakespeare had to contend with his own current political situation; to show Richard as evil and then kill him in battle justified the line of the current monarch. There is no need for Ostermeier to be faithful to this, and his replacement of the final battle with an internal battle that seems to be part of Richard’s dream is successful in giving the play focus, without letting the audience off the hook.

The relationships between the characters in the history plays are a bit hard to keep track of, and we are helped out by a quiet Star Wars-esque surtitle prologue detailing the background of the War of the Roses. The opening ensemble work during Richard’s famous monologue is extremely well executed, giving us some idea of the dynamics of relationships, status and setting up what is to come. The characters of the disenfranchised aristocracy are played off well against the ascendant family of Elizabeth, and it is easy to see the parallels to our society without it being shoved in our faces.

Jan Pappelbaum’s set resembles an Elizabethan stage, and this is predictably easy to justify for Shakespeare. In the Schaubühne, the auditorium is also more like a compressed Globe, which fits Ostermeier’s trademark intimacy as well as the historical relevance. In the larger space at Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, there is not such close physical proximity, but the actors have no trouble adapting to the larger space, and Lars Eidinger still creates an effective intimacy with the audience. This has the interesting effect of revealing the setting to be more like an ancient Greek theatron, complete with skene, paraskenion, ekkyklema and even a mechane. Bear with me on this one while I find a diagram:

The role of the ekkyklema (a kind of rolling platform which is pushed through the central door) is to reveal the inside – often characters who have died off stage. The first entrance of the rolling platform in Richard III is also to reveal a body: Henry VI. The platform is used skillfully and makes for smooth transitions that keep us in the rhythm of the play (take note, blackout artists!). The mechane (crane) in ancient Greek theatre was often used to bring gods onto the stage from above when they entered to fix everything at the end – hence ‘deus ex machina’. Here we have a suspended microphone throughout the performance (another type of machine), but it is also used at the end to hoist up the body of Richard like an animal – an interesting inversion of the original use of the mechane.

“For [Ostermeier], echoing Meyerhold, nothing should be on stage unless it directly contributes to the performance, and in particular supports the actors’ play.” 1 – Jan Pappelbaum

It is clear that while Pappelbaum jokes about being a ‘decorator’ his set is anything but, serving the play rather than adding to it. The use of sand and clay, Greek and Elizabethan design, gives the setting a timelessness while avoiding the overpowering specificity of somewhere like the Globe.

The large video projections on the stage itself are generally inoffensive, but for the most part add little to something that is already strong enough musically that they are unnecessary. However, I would say the live camera in Richard’s microphone is an excellent use of the technology and a shrewd use of cinematic technique, with the wide-angle lens really adding a layer of claustrophobia that complements the final sequences – it surprised and delighted me when it first came on.

The live drumming by Thomas Witte helps to propel us along with Richard, with some nice intricate use of polyrhythm. Neither sentimental nor dramatic, it propels us through the action and through interludes in which characters are disposed of off stage. Apart from this, there are two particular pieces of music used which seem to serve more political and symbolic purposes: Laurie Anderson’s O Superman and (I think) Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin. I must admit that I’m not entirely sure of the latter, because it was quite incomprehensibly shouty and not exactly EQ’ed to be heard above the drums, so I take it mainly as representative of rap as a genre rather than this specific song. The message is one of a disaffected nihilism; ‘Goblin’ even suggests the feeling of a kind of deformity akin to Richard’s.

Laurie Anderson’s opening repeated ‘ha’ is looped to excellent effect when Richard is crowned, as one of the moments when Richard seems to exist in the same world as the music and be influenced by it – in this case seeming interrupted or discomfited. The song returns more fully in the scene before the battle, in which Richard is (again) eating potatoes and cream cheese. I can find no sensible reason for him to keep coming on to eat potatoes and cream cheese except as a Hitler reference… Nazis used Nietzsche’s term Übermensch to describe the Aryan master race, and there is a resurgence of white supremacists in the world which recent political leaders have taken advantage of. Richard paints his face white while we hear ‘O Superman.’ The content of the song goes further to point towards (American) militarism and I think these give some clues as to the relevance of the play for the current context. I say all of this not with the intention of explaining or giving a ‘correct’ interpretation. I mention this example by way of pointing to the richness of references within the work, which can be interpreted as political. My reading of these references is not singular or ‘correct,’ and indeed it is entirely different from the explanation given by Lars Eidinger during the post-show talk.

Given the company’s choice to translate Shakespeare into modern and easily comprehensible German, I was actually a bit disappointed to be confronted with Shakespeare’s original text presented as the English surtitles. Reading it through this medium made me feel as though I was missing out on an important element of the piece. Would it be possible to translate the German text back into modern English without sending certain sectors of the theatre world into apoplexy? Maybe not, and maybe I should learn German. The play is well trimmed, with generally strong rhythmical pacing and clarity of direction. If anything I think it could stand to be trimmed even more in the middle (it seemed to run to three hours rather than the two and a half stated). I’m not sure if it was the venue’s decision, but four sets of surtitles seemed to be a little overkill, dwarfing the stage image, and the central panel interfered with the projections and live feed without adding much (though I understand the instinct to try and integrate it rather than pretend it’s not there).

The puppetry was another disappointing element, with the design sitting uncomfortably between realistic and symbolic dolls, and ending up somewhere around Thunderbirds. The actors’ puppetry skills are not terrible, but at these moments the otherwise excellent spatial rhythm on stage becomes weak. Basics of breath and focus are inconsistent, and the puppets are never given enough space (perhaps due to the design of the foot controls?). Given the reputation of puppetry in Germany it is surprising that this element is not treated with more skill and detail. While in other interpretations of the play the princes’ death might put us off Richard, here it is not so shocking because in a way they seem dead already. This is either a shrewd decision to serve the purpose of keeping the audience on Richard’s side, or a technical problem never quite overcome.

In Hong Kong, this Richard III has no trouble finding its political mark. It is a strength of Ostermeier’s interpretation that it does not hinge too much on specific cultural references to tie the play to politics, but simply gives clarity the story and situation itself. This gives it a longevity and international viability lacking in some contemporized versions.

While the political and cultural context transfers well, artistically the situation is slightly different in Hong Kong. Outside the context of postdramatic theatre in Europe, and Ostermeier’s larger body of work, this particular piece by runs a risk of being understood as not particularly innovative, or even as belonging to a different tradition entirely. In Hong Kong, postdramatic theatre remains niche and sometimes misunderstood, and a traditional Western naturalism is the predominant form of both actor training and directing. Watching this Richard III here it might be easy to assume it is an example of the same style as, for example, the Globe’s interpretations; a misconception which is exacerbated by the presence of the original text. I would love to see LCSD invite postdramatic works from other directors at the Schaubühne for artistic context.

Boenisch PM, Ostermeier T. The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier. Routledge; 2016.

About Ivor Houlker

Ivor runs Rooftop Productions in Hong Kong, a theatre company known for multidisciplinary contemporary work. He trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and completed his MA in performance at Goldsmiths College, London.

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