Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Thomas Ostermeier - Richard III

The last time Thomas Ostermeier brought a production on at Edinburgh International Festival, the German director was considered to be a young wunderkind. As he blazed a trail through his country's theatrical establishment before alighting at the Berlin Schaubuhne, his iconoclasm seemed aligned in some way to the so-called in-yer-face wave of British writers who had taken much of their influence from the similarly iconic post 1968 generation of German playwrights.

Ostermeier first came here in 1999 with a production of Marius von Mayenburg's play, Fireface, then again in 2002 with David Harrower's English language translation of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's play, The Girl on the Sofa. Fourteen years on, and still in charge of the Schaubuhne, Ostermeier's provocative aesthetic remains intact in a production of Shakespeare's Richard III which thrusts one of |the bard's most complex characters centre stage on an interpretation of an Elizabethan globe style theatre that leaves performers nowhere to hide as they attempt to connect with the audience.

Forming part of a programme at this year's EIF that commemorates the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Ostermeier's production adapted and translated into German by Ostermeier's long-term collaborator von Mayenburg, has already captivated audiences at international festivals in Romania and France since it premiered in Berlin in 2015. Having only previously brought contemporary chamber pieces to Edinburgh, for Ostermeier to be bringing a large scale classical piece after so long away is a proposition he clearly relishes.

“For me it's always very exciting to bring Shakespeare onto the island,” he chuckles as he prepares to watch his show in Romania. “Of course, there's a difference to bringing Shakespeare to London than bringing it to Edinburgh and to Scotland, so I'm excited and happy, but I'm not afraid. Of course, it's a challenge. It's in German, first of all, and it will have subtitles. Sometimes I tell myself that's better, to have the beautiful language of Shakespeare, without any bad acting.

“I myself enjoy watching Shakespeare shows and watching subtitles at the same time. I admire and praise the language of Shakespeare, and I'm pretty excited about what he audience will make of the production, but I'm quite confident about it as well.”

There's a playfulness to Ostermeier when he talks in this way. It both upends the seriousness of his work even as it accentuates its boundary-pushing extremes. Make no mistake, however. Every action, while designed to get a reaction, is carefully thought out, from the casting of Lars Eidinger in the title role, to having a live drummer play onstage, to the physical architecture of the piece.

“Having Lars play Richard was one of the most important reasons for doing the play,” Ostermeier says. “He'd played Hamlet for me six years before, and I thought he was definitely at the right place in his career to do this. My main interest was the fact that Richard is regarded as a character of evil, and how him doing evil appears onstage as he manages to climb up the ladder of power.

“Secondly, how much is Richard like a member of the audience around him? Could he be as evil without a completely corrupted world around him? A lot of that is to do with language. That is the most important topic of conversation in the rehearsal room. How does he communicate with the audience? He's not a character on a screen, so how does he do that? Thirdly, how does he exploit this and profit from being in the same space as the audience?”

The answer for Ostermeier comes in the shape of the space the play is performed in.

“The way actors performed in Elizabethan globe theatres had a lot to do with the architectural space they were in,” Ostermeier says. “There was an audience all around them, and they had to entertain them, and there were moments that they were like stand-up comedians. That comes from the architectural lines and the lines of energy in a space like that, and which makes it so very different to the relationship where you have the audience in front of you. This is much more like saying, I'm one of you, and when one of us becomes evil, that makes things more tense.

With a live drummer onstage throughout, Ostermeier's take on the play sounds like an Elizabethan cabaret, with Richard topping the bill as the deadliest of old troupers, hamming it up with the audience as he goes.

Like the writers whose work he cut his teeth on, Ostermeier has grown up steeped in popular culture in a way that makes him unafraid to marry classical drama to contemporary concerns. This has been the case ever since he worked as assistant to playwright Manfred Karge, author of Man To Man, in the early 1990s. As artistic director of the Barracke company at the Deutsches Theatre in the mid 1990s, Ostermeier focused on work by contemporary British playwrights, including Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill.

Ostermeier began to apply his aesthetic on classic plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare, and for at least the last decade now, Ostermeier says, he has directed a Shakespeare play every other year.

“The most important thing for me coming to Shakespeare,” he says, “and this might sound banal, but he is the best writer ever to have written drama. Also what is important for me, and people often forget it, is that he is part of high art, but he is also fascinated with popular culture and comedy in his writing. That's what makes him so fascinating for me, because in the time we're living in now, we have the internet, TV and YouTube, but, at the same time, we also have Bach and art exhibitions.

“All of these things are happening at the same time, so we live in a world very close to the world of Shakespeare. We have the same political situation as the Renaissance, when there was terrorism, atrocities and gunpowder plots. It was a world of prosperity, but it was also a very violent time, and yet it was also a time of science and art and renaissance, so there are very clear parallels.”

Richard III, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 24-28, 7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 23rd 2016

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