Richard III, Barbican Theatre, February 2017
In February 2017 I sat in my middle front row balcony seat at the Barbican Theatre to watch a performance that left me asking myself the question: “Why am I bothering?”. As an artist, it’s a question that I’ve been waiting to ask myself for some time but nothing, until this moment, had impressed me enough to warrant such a reaction. Thankfully, Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Richard III had arrived to awaken me from my cultural slumber.
As the eerie hum of Nils Ostendorf’s score starts to fill the theatre, actors begin to fall onto the stage from the stalls. We’re at a party but we’re not sharing in their enjoyment or their opulence. Neither is the main character. We’re on the outside looking in. Just like the main character. Perhaps we have more in common with him than we think. Lars Eidinger’s Richard creeps towards the stage with no merriment, looking bewildered and wearing the burden of being ‘other’. His handshakes are met with the sort of fake politeness used by those that don’t want to offend, but who want to make their place above you known in small gestures. As cocktail dresses, fur coats and gold confetti move around the stage, Richard’s plain white H&M t-shirt centres him and provides him with a kind of cool, outsider glamour. Through the party, he addresses us, the audience, the other outsiders, with his opening soliloquy. He lets himself be fragile, he tells us of his aims, his unfulfilled desires and hints as to why he is other. The underlying tone of sarcasm and anger in his voice is understandable. Whether the audience likes it or not, he’s got us and we’re listening. Someone is finally listening. And I sympathise.
As with any good work of art, the viewer should be able to add their own perspective and experiences rather than being told how to feel and, being an other myself thanks to my gender, sexuality and class background, I found myself quickly drawn into the performance on a personal level. Whilst a queer reading of this character is nothing new, there is something special about Eidinger’s Richard, who even manages to other himself to the largely white and middle class audience by quoting from Tyler, The Creator’s Yonkers. Richard’s movements and expressions exhibit a natural androgyny with awkward, aggressive edges; displaying a sinister passive aggression to those around him and a calculating nature even in the midst of seduction. Although you’re meant to hate the character for his aggression, murderous ideas and somewhat misplaced arrogance, these are the things that both attracted me to him and gave me a feeling of kinship. After all, when you’re on the outside you need to become stronger in order to survive and overthrow those who want to keep you quiet or worse. It’s not really arrogant to be self obsessed when you know that no one wants you – it’s a defence mechanism. Being othered so ferociously by family, the general public and, in Richard’s case, even dogs, can send you into a vengeful state. Simply surviving is all well and good but why not try and bring down those who don’t want us to live in the process?
Through the costume design of Florence von Gerkan, the importance of dressing your otherness is visible too, with Richard’s clothing adapting to his personality during his struggle for power and acceptance. Going from a casual white t-shirt to a slick black suit for the murder of Clarence, to a black and white suit in an attempt to blend in with the rest of his family so as not to arouse suspicion of his deeds, back to the black suit now upgraded with a camp sequined jacket to demonstrate his flamboyant dominance after the death of Edward, to the finale of the high-fashion fetishistic chic of a black medical corset, posture collar and a dirty black crown – an outfit which shows his subjects that the other has arrived, you must obey him and now, finally in his long lusted-after position of power, he can be as queer as he likes. Through clothing he becomes his own God, his own rock star, his own style icon, just like the other outsiders posing in front of their bedroom mirrors. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way for the “scarce half made up” Richard, who is left in the hallucinatory closing scenes not on the battlefield, but in bed alone, in his pants, engaging in a paranoid and psychotic battle with himself. Yes, he briefly got the power he wanted (and deserved) but ultimately he is still alone, still vengeful and still other. Death is the only real escape from a world so against all he is.
When I took my seat for this production I wasn’t expecting it to have such a profound effect on me. It could be argued that I was just brainwashed by Richard’s dark sexuality and whilst it is true that I often love a villain, I didn’t expect myself to relate to a Shakespearean one any time soon. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, the world’s biggest Shakespeare fan. I was drawn to this production by the promise of dark aesthetics and an undercurrent of bitterness and madness. It delivered on those fronts, but what I found in Ostermeier’s production and in particular Eidinger’s performance, was a work that was more personal and emotional than any recent contemporary art or theatre performance I have seen. And, whilst I agree with some criticism that the politics were missing at a time when they could’ve been a central point, it’s important to remember that the personal is always political for the outsider.
/ Olivia Sparrow
(Originally written for and rejected by the The Observer/Burgess prize for arts journalism 2017)