Celebrating Evil: Richard III at the Schaubühne

A Conversation with Thomas Ostermeier
by Joseph Pearson

29 January 2015

Thomas Ostermeier tells me, »I usually try to answer questions I have about a play in the rehearsal room. I don’t know what my Richard should be like before entering. I try to find out while rehearsing what might be most convincing. Because Shakespeare is more intelligent than I am, and I trust he will provide me with the answers through three-dimensional thinking – which is theatre«.

There is a limit, of course, to such spontaneity. When I meet Ostermeier, in his office, the Artistic Director of the Schaubühne is holding his head in his hands and has closed his eyes. »Tough rehearsal?« I ask. He looks up brightly and replies, »No, good rehearsal. But sometimes I envy you writers. If you want to use the word »sunset« you simply type it. But imagine if sunset just doesn’t want to mean sunset. Or, if sunset wants to be a different word. Or, if sunset takes two week’s sick leave. It can be tough being a director«.

In making his choice of play, he has left little to chance. Like a stencilist who peers into his box of letters, he ascertains whether he can print his entire message before he’s halfway through the job. Thomas tells me he chose this play because while »I could willingly and joyfully direct five or six other Shakespeare plays at the moment, I had no Lear in the company, and no Antonio, no Shylock«.

But he did have a Richard. Lars Eidinger plays him.

Who’s There?
The character of Richard

»He’s perfect for the role«, says Thomas, »I like the idea of having a very charming Richard, with whom people can sympathize. He’s so awesome. I love him«.

Sympathy is a compelling hook for the study of a man who becomes a serial killer, eliminating every obstacle in his path, to reach his royal objective. When facing the challenge of making Richard come alive for an audience, Ostermeier likes to reflect on the first lines of Hamlet: »Who’s there?« It is a question Thomas has asked in many of his plays, and one with which he recently addressed an international conference on his work this past September in London.

»For me, this is a basic question of Shakespeare’s writing: »who’s there?» in the sense of »who are we? « and »what is a human being? « Is it the social role one plays in a community, or is it the true identity of the character?«

There is a political and religious context to how this question plays out in Shakespeare’s work. Ostermeier falls on one side of the ongoing debate about Shakespeare’s religious belief, and explains, »I think Shakespeare was living in a world where pretending to be someone else was fundamental in order to survive. Shakespeare was part of a Catholic family in Elizabethan times, when it was forbidden and you could be sentenced to death. We know that Shakespeare was Catholic but we do not know whether this played a role in his daily life. I like the idea that, from childhood onwards, he grew used to playing at being somebody else, to survive. That’s what makes these plays work; this is their inner motor«.

Shakespeare was indeed well aware of his audience: he ingratiated himself with royal power, perhaps to protect himself. Richard III, written ca. 1592, was propaganda for Elizabeth Tudor, and her Lancastrian ancestors (who opposed Richard, and won, approximately one hundred years before). The character of Richard III, like Shakespeare, uses careful rhetoric as a strategy for advancement and then survival. The theorist, of course, delights at the meta-level: the way the actors themselves are always acting. Richard is the consummate player, well aware of his rhetorical trickery to deceive his opponents, such as in the scenes of self-presentations of piety before the burghers of London.

»Richard has very evil aims, to become the King«, says Thomas, »But he has to put on the role of somebody who is only interested in God, and in the wellbeing of the King, of the Kingdom, of England. He has to pretend that he has no evil in mind. So what interests me then is the theatrical: to provide an actor with the task of playing his own opposite. Of course this is very demanding. When you hear about Richard, you think this is a play about evil, about the most evil character we know in dramatic literature. True. At the same time, you are challenged by the task of being careful in not showing he is evil, or else you will never succeed«.

This task of balancing intentions and self-presentation has, of course, a distinguished history, taken up by many famous past Richards. Laurence Olivier is perhaps the most famous; although my own sense is that his performance appears to today’s audiences half Mr Bean, half James Bond evil genius – played with a voice of synthetic authority. More contemporary examples include Kevin Spacey, who played Richard in 2012 (directed by Sam Mendes) shortly before appearing in House of Cards, a series modeled closely on the play’s single-minded pursuit of power, complete with long soliloquies and asides to the camera. We should not forget another recent incarnation: the sudden appearance of the ossified remains of Richard himself, dug up in a municipal car park in Leicester two years ago. Ostermeier shows me a picture of his plans for Lars Eidinger, and he looks ugly enough to have been recently unearthed. He will appear complete with Richard’s telltale deformed hump and taped arm, contrapuntally »descanting on his own deformity«.

But what more does a well acted Richard achieve other than »proving to be a villain«? Does the serial killer become an anti-hero? For the protagonist to become tragic, much depends on how much pity is activated at the conclusion: will Richard be exposed, reduced, humbled by bad dreams? Will he be stabbed in the back as he flails looking for a horse, and thus be humanized? Are we so impressed by his intelligence (to the extent that he rarely needs to lie to mislead his victims) that we root for him? Or does he remain simply a psychopath (before psychiatry)? Ostermeier contends he is much more than a monster: he is not an exception but rather representative of more widespread instincts.

»Underlying everything is the pleasure of having a character onstage who does all the things that are forbidden in a civilized world«, he says, »Of course, civilization is an incredible achievement; otherwise we couldn’t get along with each other. We know that we cannot kill, that we cannot rape, that we cannot take what belongs to others. The problem is that this civilization is a curse, because we have forces that drive us, and these impulses are there; we have the Freudian drive to die (Todestrieb), to make love, for sex, we even have a certain drive to violence. We also have a drive to humanism, for instance to sharing. But I think what makes us suffer in this civilized world is that, to survive as a society, we have to ignore some of these forces which are inside us. Theatre is a beautiful tool to send somebody on stage, who is Richard, and to make him do all those things for us that we ourselves would sometimes like to do«.

»You have to face the fact – and this is a stupid sentence – that evil exists. The question is: »Would Richard exist if the world around him weren’t ready for him?« Let’s not ignore it, because if we ignore it, it risks going into a corner where all of a sudden, like a monster, it comes back much bigger than if we truthfully deal with it. For this reason, I want to celebrate evil on stage«.

The wronged heirs of York
A play with which you must play

My very first question for Thomas Ostermeier was: »Why did you choose such a play that is so notoriously difficult to perform?’ He did it because he had a Richard. Fair enough, but Richard III presents tremendous problems for the director and audience, and these demand solutions.

Firstly, the play is simply too long. A 20s American critic said that »After midnight a young man’s fancy turns to anything but Richard III«. Might this also explain the presence of so many citrus-selling prostitutes lurking among the groundlings of the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s time during a five-hour production? Without such entertainments, the play demands not just pruning, but a hacking down to size. Ostermeier’s production, incidentally, will be less than three hours, and no one, to the theatre’s knowledge, will be vending oranges.

The problem of cutting material then becomes one of dramaturgy: how to make a play with so many holes remain dramatically intelligible? One pitfall is the possibility that a reduced text will yield a Punch and Judy show, as Shaw put it: a simple series of murders on stage, a play discounted as the puerile fancy, of violence and villainy, of a very young Shakespeare. The story of terror becomes divorced from the complexities, which, unwieldy, nonetheless provide context.

This might be a risk in the hands of a lesser director, but in those of someone sensitive the tradition of cutting might present a compelling challenge. It might in fact be one of the great attractions of the play: the opportunity to remake it. The strong tradition of interpolations and changes gives the director a license to challenge the »holy inviolable text« (a status accorded to so many of Shakespeare’s creations).

The German director has yet another advantage. Ostermeier tells me, »A lot of British directors who are friends of mine envy us for the necessity of having to translate Shakespeare because then you can create a new world. But then I envy you for having the beauty of the language in English«.

Indeed, the play spoken in German is freed once more from the holiness of the original script. In the Schaubühne’s case, there is a new prose translation by playwright Marius von Mayenburg. »Why prose?« I ask, and Thomas replies, »Because English has fewer syllables for a word than German. So you cannot write iambic pentameter without losing content and sense. If you go for the rhyme in the end, it’s even worse. So we go for the content and not for the poetic power of the language«. This also has the advantage of making the text more intelligible, and more appealing to a young audience.

Having to explain so much Medieval English history, alluded to by a large cast of hardly differentiated nobles, is the next challenge. Although Richard III preceded the related tetralogy of Henry VI plays, and stands very much on its own, it still assumes a visceral knowledge of the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. How to make this intelligible to a German public at the beginning of the 21st century? Ostermeier says that there will be texts and video at the beginning of the play explaining the War of the Roses. And he rolls his eyes at the idea of introducing a new context for the play. There will be no fascist banners on stage, as in the 1995 film production starring Ian McKellen, who turned Richard into a Hitler figure.

»This solution is too easy«, says Thomas, ‹Then you can point to it. You can say: this is evil; it’s fascism. Who identifies with a fascist? Almost nobody. I am only interested in a character so elegant that he seduces me to be happy in his evil doing. And that is frightening. There’s no contemporary context on the political level. This is completely different from my production of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind (Enemy of the People). You cannot boil Richard III down to some issue play«.

And the beholders of this tragic play...
Untimely smother'd in their dusky graves.
The Globe in Berlin

One of the most spectacular aspects of the production is the building of a new theatre within the Schaubühne: a new Globe Theatre, modeled on Shakespeare’s stage in London. I approached this reconstruction with surprise. My prejudice, of course, as a historian, was that at some level a historical space might necessitate a historical style. But I could not possibly imagine an Ostermeier production in historical costume. Not unless Richard himself had risen from his car park and had tormented him in his sleep.

Responding to my head-scratching, Thomas replies, »Come downstairs and see the theatre, and you will be able to tell me why we made it. You will not need any other explanation: no words«.

My first reaction on entering was: »It’s fantastic. You can see everyone«.

»When you stand here, there are no more questions«, says Thomas.

Feet planted on the sloping stage to the half-barreled galleries, it’s immediately clear that there is a simple reason why this space needed to be built: because it is the style of theatre for which Shakespeare wrote his plays. It’s better; it’s ergonomic. There is no historical concern here: simply one of form meeting function.

»There is this theory that when you have a certain period in literary history, the way of writing drama has to do with the architecture of the space they were writing for: Greek drama was written for Epidaurus, the Antique theatre. And Shakespeare was writing for this kind of theatre«.

The tip of the stage juts into the audience, and there is immediately a tremendous sense of intimacy, perfect for an aside or soliloquy; it forces you to communicate with the audience. As Thomas says, you »cannot ignore them. The audience is brought close not only to watch but also to judge – not just the characters, but themselves, and how far they might allow themselves to be seduced. You know, I am feeling very proud of this theatre. We will keep the Globe, and I will do three or four other Shakespeare plays here«.

»Which will be the next one?«

»Maybe Twelfth Night«.

I now have too many questions, and am too impatient to wait for the Richard III premiere.

»What is the back of the stage made of? «

»Everything is organic: the walls, the ground: it’s all clay«.

»Will there be ghosts?« I ask.

»Of course«.

»And will there be battles?«

»Yes!« he exclaims, excited, like a little boy, »There will even be fencing! «


»Yes, fencing«.

»I love fencing!«

Thomas has me sit in seats located below, above, and at eye level with the stage. You feel alternatively powerful or diminished in relation to the actors, but always intimate, often close enough to hear them breathe.

»I like that every audience member can feel that he can stretch his arm and touch the actors«, he says.

From below, they seem like Gods, from above you might pity them.

But where to sit?

»You will have to come twice«, says Thomas.

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
Translation and version by Marius von Mayenburg
Director: Thomas Ostermeier

Premiered on 7 February 2015