Michael Cox reviews a production with a brilliant central performance but a lot of problems.
Style over substance: a charge levied at a lot of productions that take bold measures to re-interpret classic texts with modern techniques. And while it is not completely true with Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre’s brave production of Richard III, it’s closer to the mark than not.
There is much to like and admire in director Thomas Ostermeier’s production. The large multi-layered design with projections, stairs, poles and a large gladiator-like sandpit all impress, and the choice to add snippets of text (song lyrics, extra reactions and bits of the text repeated—some of this in English) adds interesting commentary to the dramatic action.
And there is a towering performance from Lars Eidinger as Richard. His take on the historic villain is more punk: sarcastic, sometimes bare-chested and happy to whip-up frenzies, but always tenacious. He does vile things, but oh boy is he compelling to watch.
It’s in looking outward, however, where the cracks begin to show. There isn’t a bad performance in the ensemble, but no one comes close to Eidinger’s command of stage, meaning everyone else is all but dwarfed, even when their character is supposed to be front and centre in Shakespeare’s text—and some key characters important to the story are left completely on the cutting room floor. While Ostermeier has some great visual flourishes, he shows most of his hand within the first 30 minutes, meaning there is little surprise left for the audience past the first murder.
And when you’re asking the audience to sit in their seats without an interval for over two and a half hours, you better come up with a production that consistently surprises and thrills—this all but fails to do either in the second half. It completely relies on Eidinger. He’s terrific—but even a single brilliant performance can only do so much.
Performs at the Royal Lyceum as part of the Edinburgh International Festival until August 28.