First published in The Times, Friday August 26 2016
What a pity for Thomas Ostermeier that the legendary Moira Knox is no longer alive to see his raucous Shakespeare adaptation. The production, which originated at Berlin’s renowned Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, contains all the ingredients that would have had the late Tory councillor and self-appointed guardian of public decency frothing at the mouth and therefore guaranteeing the director an Edinburgh International Festival smash hit.
There is full-frontal nudity here, as well as a liberal sprinkling of profanity, both in German and English (no supertitles required), topped off with scenes of violence and all set to a rowdy live soundtrack. Lars Eidinger, the lead actor, even steps out of character at one point to berate an audience member for nodding off in the front row: “Are you dying or sleeping?” he demands.
Ostermeier’s entire production revolves around Eidinger’s compelling, endlessly unpredictable turn as Shakespeare’s Machiavellian hero, which proves both a blessing and a curse. No attempt whatever is made here to court sympathy for the “rudely stamp’d” outsider: rather, Richard’s murderous path to the top job appears pure sport, and Eidinger, hunchbacked and twisted of limb, is part seductive devil and part pantomime villain. His many asides, nods and winks to the audience are so flamboyant you half expect him to cackle in the manner of the Hooded Claw at the climax of every scene.
This auditorium-filling performance aside, the production does feature a number of startling set pieces. The murder of Clarence (Christoph Gawenda) is like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with bright red blood streaming across the stage. Creepily, lifelike tailor’s dummies portray the young princes. Richard’s coronation, in corset, neck brace and tiny knickers, resounds to the opening chords of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman.
Though there is much on the surface to enjoy here, the pure central idea of a sociopath with the freedom and power to indulge his every murderous whim is not quite enough to sustain our involvement, and when Eidinger briefly leaves the stage, the whole thing shrinks a little. Only in the penultimate scene, in which the ghosts of his victims haunt Richard and the king turns his fear and loathing inwards, does Ostermeier’s production acquire a depth that is lacking elsewhere.