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Schaubühne Berlin´s Richard III @ BAM, New York

Heavy statement ahead: unless you were alive during WWII, this has got to be the most discontented of your winters. Instead of a laundry-list of all things wrong with the world we live in at this time, I will trust that you have experienced, or are aware of the wrongs that affect you personally the most, and know what they are. Richard III, the Shakespeare play which portrays a despicable character as its main, came to town. Presented by Schaubühne Berlin and directed by Thomas Ostermeier (entirely in German except for the occasional English), this was the right thing to see at the wrongest of times. This German adaptation is embedded with German sensibility, in many ways it is grotesque, bizarre, out there. It is unusual. It falls short at times, but it is also brilliant. It is experimental, and in delivering this experiment it brings to the stage an experience of its creation. The main character speaks to us, breaking the fourth wall by coyly justifying his missing catch of the microphone (‘it’s harder than it looks, you know?’) and later insecurely yet humorously addressing the size of his exposed, cold-weather, onstage penis.

The play adaptation starts with a bang. Actors waltz forward from within the audience, carrying champagne glasses, visibly intoxicated by both the alcohol and each other. The music is loud, I mean, LOUD, and is generous with its use of heavily distorted guitars. Once empty, the stage is filled with the leftover remnants, the rags, the glasses – clearly the stage is unimportant to these characters, even the audience may not matter to them. They never saw us, though we caught a glimpse of their wealth and bourgeois. Richard III is left alone and we know, in a sense, he is just like us – he doesn’t belong either. He’s uninvited, he isn’t one of them, though we will come to see clearly, he will force his way in. As the play progresses he retracts into himself more and more, becoming more isolated, but for the audience it’s too late. We want to know about him, a strange form of charisma brought upon us, precisely because he is so horrendous. He lacks a moral backbone; he’s awful. One of the most easy to hate of all Shakespeare’s villains, he is here to lie, cheat and kill his way into power.
The sibling rivalry mentioned by Richard a few times reminds us that this a man-child who didn’t get enough attention in his younger years, and whose mother did not hug him enough. Now an adult, and with enough wealth to make himself the leader of a whole kingdom, we must watch him go about his plan. His speech is impaired, his back hunched, his body language defeated and dejected. He grabs the microphone at any chance he gets and yells out whatever comes to mind. He makes fun of his closest allies and when they are no longer useful to him, he turns his back on them. He uses the church and state to create a new state, from which the church is anything but separate. Without guilt he recites from the bible to gain support. He cares about no one in particular, pursuing a woman after having killed her husband, purely because he could.

Assuming we’ve all read Richard III, or seen or watched it, or at the very least heard about it, we know what we came to see. However, this audience sits here in 2017, and the similarities seem too close to home. The unhinged nation gets the unhinged leader it deserves? Ouch. All forms of lying and bigotry are expected and eventually, over the course of these few hours, we simply become desensitized to them. It’s just too much.

When the stage isn’t shrouded in near darkness, it is house-lights bright. Though the English language is shown on stage, translated from the German being spoken by the actors, which was translated from the original  English, this adaptation carries no British politeness. At one point over dinner Richard III smears dessert on a sycophant who attempts to ride the coattails of Richard’s power. The dessert is the colour and consistency of feces, which isn’t lost on Richard. He yells at the man “you look like shit, have you eaten pussy today?”; which he then encourages the audience to chant along. Barely anyone does, because these New Yorkers are as confounded as they are underwhelmed, which one can only speculate was the original intent of the gimmick. This goes on for minutes, as in, about four of them. One audience member closeby can’t take it anymore and yells “IDIOT!”. The actor playing Richard challenges him to fight it out, the man declines – an altogether unfortunate interlude which severely steals from the brilliance of the play. We weren’t shocked; it wasn’t funny, or even uncomfortable. It carried no meaning; it made no point, and we were left with a resounding feeling of WHY?

Juvenile toilet humor aside, this adaptation successfully created a whole new world in itself. Within the sentiment of the audience it created a world not inhabited by Richard III, but rather one we may experience after he rules. It created a snapshot into a decaying society and its absurd ways. Dark or light, black or white, a world in which nuance has lost its place and bold statements make headline-reading merely a source of click-bait-worthy material. It’s a lot like 2017. The production hits all the sweet spots, with just enough of everything to not overwhelm us, whilst keeping true to the spirit of the play. The one onstage murder scene is purposefully drawn out, long and vivid and filled with red goo that oozes and elegantly seeps into the sand beneath. We watch this  in all its delightful goriness. We are so engrossed, we forget that a man was just wrongfully killed. It doesn’t switch our focus from the reality of impending doom, but rather it numbs us, making us stare into nothingness with blank faces as the sand becomes red. Again, it’s a lot like our present reality, as democracy crumbles in front of our eyes and we act like deer in the headlights.  

There is no redemption. There is no goodness we can take home with us. The final scene where Richard sleeps and vividly dreams is mesmerising, but not beautiful. He holds the microphone/camera close to his face, his eyes shut, we are inside his madness. The image of his face is projected above, and the shot is bleeding right through. Every pore is visible, the image is shaky. Richard’s dreams disturb the peace he’s never felt or portrayed, and we are now to feel his discomfort as closely as we can in a theater that sits so many. We do. We feel his loneliness, the source of any of the sympathy we have felt for him along the way. His sadness. His anger at this world.. Here is Richard, deformed, miserable, rife with psychological issues that no amount of power could afford a solution to. We feel for him in this brief moment, but within a few minutes are reminded again: please keep him away from the White House. I mean, the ruling of the Kingdom.

Image courtesy of BAM