A Fucking Limping Paradox: Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III at BAM

Photograph: © 2017 Richard Termine

A white light emits from the mouth of a vintage Shure Unidyne microphone dangling from the ceiling on what looks like an electric vine with various twists and hooks adorned. When Richard comes unhinged, as he does at various times during Schaubühne Berlin’s production of Richard III which ran though October 14th as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, he throws the black vine across the sparse, sand-filled set (designed by Jan Pappelbaum) and ultimately wills the microphone back to his deformed hand as if it was an extension of his decrepit form. The microphone itself seems to have a life of its own, coming alive when Richard (played by Lars Eidinger) spits out his diabolical plans of seedy political ambition. The microphone is Richard’s way of speaking directly into the ears of the audience, stripping away the open-throated melodrama that plagues modern productions of Shakespeare and plugging into our, as director Thomas Ostermeier puts it, “innermost abyss.”

The play begins with a depraved, raucous celebration. Pappelbaum’s set evokes a ravished world ready to be rebuilt on the heels on victory. We see both rigid form and unfinished, raw material. At the foot of the House of York is nothing more than sand, slowly absorbing the blood, ash and come recklessly spilled during the War of Roses and in the hours to come. Nils Ostendorf’s propulsive music (with drums played live onstage by Thomas Witte) creates a tension so palpable I found myself revisiting long-expired nervous tics in response.

Eidinger masterfully builds on that tension as he addresses the audience. Using Marius von Mayenburg’s German translation he snarls and laughs, charms and disgusts, bringing us closer and closer, trusting us as his confidants. When wooing Lady Anne (whose husband and step-father he has murdered), Richard strips naked, revealing all the pain and baggage that accompany his afflictions. The fact that his hump is revealed as an artificial costume piece doesn’t lessen the effect—rather it gives the impression that what Richard carries are not genetic deformities, but punishments doled out and laid on him for a life ill-lived. But don’t worry, just as pity creeps into the room, Richard reminds us of his demons and rubs his genitals on the face of the deceased king.

At various points Eidinger drops Shakespeare (and German) altogether and addresses the audience in modern English. He pokes fun at the translation prompted on the wall, he chastises audience members for arriving late (“You missed the opening monologue!”), he quotes Eminem and then muses on the shorter-than-you’d-think distance between the language of Shakespeare and hip-hop. Shortly thereafter a familiar beat pulses through the Harvey Theatre and suddenly we’re thrown into Eidinger’s version of (American rapper) Tyler, the Creator’s Yonkers:

I’m a fucking walking paradox—
No I’m not!
Threesomes with a fucking triceratops

It’s jarring at first, but quickly becomes a surprisingly fitting combination of Shakespeare and hip-hop. Instead of attempting to squeeze Shakespeare’s pentameter into rap, Ostermeier and Eidinger take the persona of Richard and let it sit side-by-side with Tyler’s, sharing space, as it were. The beat drops and Richard’s scoliotic torso leans ever closer to the audience as he pierces through the silence with Tyler’s final verse:

Fuck the fame and all the hype, G
I just want to know if my father would ever like me
But I don’t give a fuck, so he’s probably just like me
A motherfucking Goblin

Society needs villains and Shakespeare offers up Richard with little apology. Shakespeare’s (and Ostermeier’s) tactic here is not so far removed from Tyler, pre-sobriety Eminem, and other like-minded artists who purposefully adopt the most vulgar aspects of a culture. By throwing all the cards on the table and celebrating their darkest impusles, they are able to go to uncomfortable places and mine aspects of human nature that are often hidden in plain sight. Eidinger likewise seems to revel in making the audience uncomfortable, both playing with and against the room. In the performance I saw, he nearly succeeds in getting an audience of (presumably) wealthy Brooklynites to scream “You look like shit!” and “Have you eaten any pussy yet today?” at a dumbfounded Buckingham (Moritz Gottwald).

We are as repulsed as we are entertained, we reward as often as we condemn and ultimately love to applaud and take credit for when villains reform. After all, there are plenty of heroes in Shakespeare’s worlds that commit atrocities as damning as Richard’s, but most ultimately show a humanity that allows us to categorize them as possessing some semblance of basic decency. In Richard III, however, Shakespeare denies us this reformation and we are left to deal with Richard on his own terms, willfully and forever afflicted by his demons.

The final battle is waged by Richard alone. We witness a man stabbing away at foes that exist only in his head, his nightmares as real and terrifying as a full-fledged battle. He thrashes around the blood-soaked sand with a haunted fury—a possessed phantom fleeing a shadow. As life drains away, Richard connects one final time with his microphone, tying his engorged foot to the vine as it lifts, dangling his corpse in the air. Richard’s words spin in my mind:

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

A fucking dangling paradox.

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