Thursday 25 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Richard III at the Lyceum, or, An Endurance Test of Mostly Wearily Familiar Elements

When I arrived at the Lyceum and saw that this show was to run for two and a half hours without an interval my heart sank. The omission of an interval is increasingly common but only occasionally justified - the superb The War at EIF 2014 for example – sadly it was not so in this case. This show is a largely unoriginal endurance test, and is another disappointment in what has been a weak year for International Festival theatre.

The set (designer Jan Pappelbaum) is nondescript. Occasional pieces of furniture appear but the main element is a full length wall with a balcony, a set of stairs, a fireman's pole and various doorways across the back. Additionally, a microphone/camera/harness hangs centre stage. We could be pretty much anywhere and this has a familiar effect in Shakespeare of making it difficult to believe that there is a kingdom at stake. A further effect is that there are an unfortunately obvious number of escape routes at crucial points when there should be none (from Clarence's prison cell for example).

Director Thomas Ostermeier does appear to have a couple of alternative theories to the obvious nation at stake question. One is that Richard is having a bit of a joke with this whole let's take over the kingdom thing - there was a similar element to the recent Almeida production of this play. Another is that it may all be a fantasy – this reaches a climax in the final section when the nightmare scene segues into Richard fighting a load of invisible enemies before putting his foot through the harness and being hoisted upside down into midair apparently dead. I'm not saying there is no textual justification for either of these theories, but there is too much conflict between both and other aspects of the performance and the text. The overall effect as far as I was concerned was to render me indifferent to the proceedings (and in the last half hour increasingly keen that they should just get on and be done with them). There is one insightful idea which is to have the princes done as puppets, but, like occasionally compelling moments across the evening it's lost in the overall muddle. Nor, it turned out, were other insights always as they seemed. Richard strips naked to woo Lady Anne and in the course of the scene there was a line on the supertitles about the nature of his body. I thought well, okay, the nudity is trying to speak to that line even if it doesn't work for the scene as a whole – but the line does not appear in the form given in my copy of the text.

These muddled ideas are also not helped by the legion of wearily familiar vices of current theatre which this performance contained. The general movement is poor, and the balcony at the back is particularly ineffectively used. Occasional really effective movement – for example during Edward IV's final speech – stands out partly because it is rare. The persistent back projections and the close up filming, mostly of Richard's face, add little. The Festival has seen loud drumming (here provided by Nils Ostendorf) as Shakespearean accompaniment before in the recent Chinese Coriolanus, though I grant the hip-hopesque delivery of some of the soliloquys is new though not very effective. Bafflingly the drumming is dropped before the final battle, just the point when it might really added something. Following the coronation an electronic beeping noise is introduced, like an unsilenced alarm, for unclear reasons. It seems you can't do Shakespeare these days without turning the audience into groundlings (see Measure for Measure earlier in the Festival) – here it is apparently thought clever/funny to get middle class Edinburghers to say “shit” in German. There is some ridiculous costuming – Richard spending the scenes from his coronation onwards dressed only in a corset and underpants is particularly notable – I was baffled as to why anybody was following any orders from the man. And there are the usual instances of actors being given silly things to do – Richard smearing his face with what looked to be the cream sauce from a plate of food and then staying like that for the rest of the play, and the risible death of Clarence (very conspicuously if understandably trying to get his breath back when supposed to be deceased being only part of the problem). Maybe Edinburgh audiences see less of these things, I feel I have seen far too much.

A really compelling performance from Lars Eidinger in the title role might have salvaged matters. He certainly throws himself into it physically, and there are strong moments of delivery but he can't finally transcend the flaws of the production. In particular, he's too obviously mocking things when in full view of people who we need to believe are convinced by them – the scene when he's praying and refusing to be crowned is a notable example. I stick to my belief that while he can be nakedly villainous to the audience from the outset, he must present a different face to those people onstage he has to seduce.  Of the rest Thomas Bading stands out as Edward IV, and Eva Meckbach has some strong moments as Elizabeth. The rest of the company is solid enough, but neither production nor heavy doubling is helpful to them, and moments of connection between themselves or with me were fleeting.

This was the penultimate show in what has been, apart from The Glass Menagerie, a dismal year for International Festival theatre. This is surprising, given that it is supposed to be Fergus Linehan's area of particular expertise. I see the final offering, The Toad Knew, tonight. Hopefully it will be better.

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