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Review: Richard III (Schaubuhne, Barbican Theatre)

Thomas Ostermeier's German production of Shakespeare's dark play is an intense rocket ride over two and a half hours

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Richard III is probably the most monstrous of Shakespeare's creations. With his limp, hunchback and drive to kill anything getting between him and the throne – including his two young nephews – he has become the quintessential villain: one we love to hate. And in Thomas Ostermeier's production for Berlin's Schaubuhne Theatre, he's definitely a monster. But it's actually quite hard to hate him.

That has a lot to do with Lars Eidinger's explosive, sharp-edged portrayal of Richard. Oddly enough, his Richard is kind-of sexy – it's something about his confidence, the way he revels in his nastiness. He shares his dark plans with the audience as he edges closer and closer to becoming King of England. And we like him for that. Part of him is a clown – he wears a classic clown shoe on his club foot (it's black, of course). But that joker quality comes together with a sociopathic rock-star aspect which means his treatment of those around him is both chilling and compelling. The audience eggs him on.

Ostermeier directs Marius von Mayenburg's slimmed-down, prose version of Shakespeare's original over two and a half hours with no interval. For British audiences, not used to these European customs ‘infecting' our theatre, it might sound like a daunting prospect. But this Richard III does not let up. The production rockets through the play, keeping most scenes short (although the pace does dip in the middle) and the humour, much of it coming direct from Eidinger, at the forefront throughout.

Von Mayenburg starts by laying out the backstory in surtitles and the action begins, not with a lone Richard, but in the new court as the courtiers and politicians party after their win. Quietly, in this throng of salacious drinking and fornicating, in stoops Richard, keeping a cool eye on the celebrations. In the middle of the stage hangs a microphone and Eidinger grabs it and delivers "Now is the winter of our discontent." In this first scene he throws the microphone back and forward like a pendulum all over the stage. At one point he hangs onto it and swings out over the audience. He's putting on a show and he knows we're enjoying it.

Punk infuses Ostermeier's production, which places a drummer and drum kit to the side of the stage and loud raucous drum solos burst into life throughout the show. Towards the end, when Richard is finally king, things quieten and Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" rings out, clear like a bell. It is a turning point for Richard, where his self-obsession and paranoia begins to take over. Eidinger has ensured that so far Richard has taken the audience with him as he manipulates and murders those around him. It's then, alone at a dinner table, wearing only a corset and Y-fronts, his face covered in white paint, he begins to crack. The final battle scenes are fought, not by hordes but by Richard himself, alone, dreaming, haunted and hunted by his demons.

Jan Pappelbaum's designs provide the perfect playground for Richard, with the stage covered in mud, sand and mess from the off. Ostermeier really lets us see the sheer audacity of this character's actions - just how nasty he is. It is a superb, corruscating ride and one which implicates the audience in the king's rise whilst also making his darkness feel horribly human. The rest of the cast have trouble finding space for their roles in the expanse of Eidinger's performance: it's really a one-man show. But what a man, and what a show.

Richard III runs at the Barbican Centre until 19 February.