An unhinged nation gets the unhinged leader it deserves.
This nasty but tidy political equation pulses in every molecule of Thomas Ostermeier’s stunning production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which runs through Saturday as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. As dark jokes go, that one may not be your first choice as the basis for an evening’s entertainment, given the ways of the world these days.
But this production from Schaubühne Berlin, which fills the Harvey Theater with the pervasiveness of a slimy fog, could provide just the catharsis you need right now. After all, it’s the month of Halloween, when people find release in celebrating what scares them, laughing and shrieking in one breath.
If that’s what you’re in the mood for, this take on a psychopathic king — from a country whose past notably includes highly destructive acquaintance with a demented head of state — offers chills that no seasonal spook house could hope to emulate. And in the title role, the astonishing Lars Eidinger is a bogeyman guaranteed to haunt your nightmares for weeks to come.
For Mr. Eidinger, who presents his character’s gnarled frame as if it were the dernier cri in high fashion, is a Richard who is so utterly and aggressively upfront about who he is and what he plans that it’s hard to take him seriously at first. He knows there’s a part of us that revels in the openly bad behavior of public figures gone rogue, and he plays to the crowd’s feelings of complicit naughtiness.
The audience with which I saw the show on Wednesday night laughed heartily at his outrageousness in the early scenes, as this thoroughly modern medieval monarch played the fool to put corrupt, infighting, old-order politicians in their place (which would be the grave). He’s ugly-sexy, with his fetishist accessories, including that obviously artificial hump. You can understand why the play’s (reduced) cast of women (Jenny König and Eva Meckbach, with Robert Beyer in drag as the mad Margaret) respond to his erotic energy.
And, oh, the things he does to keep our attention — swinging from a cable like a hyperactive monkey, stripping down to the affrontive altogether, urinating in a triumphal arc, getting cozy with audience members as he roves the aisles, making fun of the projected supertitles that translate his German into English. He even raps like Tyler, the Creator. “The devil doesn’t wear Prada,” he snarls contemptuously, quoting from that recording artist’s “Goblin.”
That anachronistic moment comes late in this “Richard III,” which runs an uninterrupted two and a half hours. By then, you realize that its confiding, soliloquizing title character is not quite the amiable host you thought he was, and you’re most likely feeling guilty for having egged him on earlier.
That’s especially true after he encourages the audience to repeat — in full voice, again and again — an obscene question that Richard asks his chief collaborator, Buckingham (a serpentine Moritz Gottwald), on whom he has smeared the remains of his gooey brown dinner. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift (a pop star who is not, for the record, quoted in this show): “Look what you made me do.”
With a gritty adaptation by the eminent dramatist Marius von Mayenburg, which renders Shakespearean poetry as harsh and urgent prose, this “Richard III” is not overtly political. There are none of the usual parallel-striking fascist outfits or media-manipulating photo-op scenes.
Instead, Mr. Ostermeier — a reigning classics-bender of German theater (“Hedda Gabler,” “An Enemy of the People”) — sets his “Richard” in the land of Id. It’s a place where the social rules that keep our uglier impulses in check have been suspended, and everybody is dancing with death.
Jan Pappelbaum’s set, which places poles and scaffolding over a dirt floor showered in silver and gold confetti, brings to mind a blasted-out ballroom. The opening scene is staged as one big, crazy party, as the performers — dressed in Florence von Gerkan and Ralf Tristan Sczesny’s stridently elegant black-and-white-costumes — rush the stage in an orgy of rampant energy, amid deafening music (by Nils Ostendorf).
A devastating civil war has just ended, and these people, the nominal victors, are in a mood to whoop it up. There’s one man among them, though, who can’t quite match their capering exuberance. The poor guy, in a white T-shirt and suspenders, has a burdensome humped shoulder, and he drags one foot.
That’s our Richard, and you wonder at first if he can keep his balance. But as he hijacks the proceedings by intoning the opening monologue into a dangling microphone, you realize that being out of kilter has prepared him to navigate an out-of-kilter universe. The show’s propulsive, ominous, percussive score (performed by Thomas Witte) is music that Richard was born to dance to.
Subsequent descriptions of England as a “tottering state” and “reeling world” have never sounded more apt. Such is the state of a nation where those who would rule have been at one another’s throats for so long and so desperately. Even the peacemaking King Edward (Thomas Bading), Richard’s brother, becomes notably unsteady on his feet.
Theatergoers with an allergy to gore should know that the play’s bloodiest scene — in which Richard’s brother Clarence (Christoph Gawenda) is assassinated — comes early, and it’s a shocker. After that, many of the moments that have been the Grand Guignol favorites of traditional productions (like the decapitated head sequence) are left to our imaginations, which have been thoroughly infected.
The final battle scene is performed as a solo turn by Mr. Eidinger, whose Richard has by now tunneled so far up his own warped ego that no one else exists for him. He has taken to communing with himself (that hanging mike has a camera that projects him in harrowing close-ups) in a trance of dementia.
By then, he has exchanged the sharp suits he sported during his rise to power for a corset, a neck brace and his underpants. His face has been caked in a white foodstuff, fresh from the royal dinner plate. And his voice is the growling whisper of horror movie killers, playing with their prey.
His mind is a terrible place to visit, but we’re stuck there. That’s the price we pay for not taking him seriously from the beginning.