Thomas Ostermeier makes Richard III popular in Avignon

Lars Eidinger in the title role of Thomas Ostermeier's Richard III by William Shakespeare
Lars Eidinger in the title role of Thomas Ostermeier's Richard III by William Shakespeare Arno Declair

The second of three Shakespeare plays has opened at the 69th Avignon Festival. Director Thomas Ostermeier’s six-month-old production in German with English punctuation went down very well overall. Lars Eidinger's lead performance was a hit.


With contemporary costumes, a 21st century stage, sound and video design, a live drummer with an impressive kit AND German language, Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III is still easily recognisable. He has pretty much stuck to the text written by Shakespeare, the first of his historical plays in the late 16th century.

The most well-known lines are repeated in English: “This is the winter of our discontent” and “a horse, a horse, my kingdom.”

The Avignon crowd packed the Opera Theatre in the centre of town on Monday night. It was full of critics and theatre professionals, as well as theatre lovers who had booked early enough to avoid disappointment.

When it ended, they applauded for so long that Ostermeier’s team came back for six curtain calls whereas the standard here is three.

The joy was palpable. Alice, a young local theatre fan, described it as “amazing".

"The actors were amazing, especially Richard III," she said. "I saw him tortured by his passion and becoming more horrible with every person he murders. He tries to save himself, but he just goes deeper and deeper.”

This drama is rarely over the top. Ostermeier knows just when to rein in his actors. This doesn’t prevent Lars Eidinger, who plays Richard forcefully, wickedly and cunningly, from using his talent to give cause for a number of politically incorrect but theatrically permissible laughs.

The play talks amongst other things about the negative effects exclusion can have, not only on the excluded like deformed Richard III, but subsequently on those who exclude them.

Isabelle, a stage director with a play at the Festival OFF, says Ostermeier did everything right, including choosing a play for today.

“It’s a complicated story and he’s really understood it," she said. "He made me laugh, he made me cry. It’s aesthetically perfect. That’s what theatre should be. Richard III is very clever because you understand that the main character can behave like a fascist because his entourage is complicit.

Although it’s set in contemporary style it could refer to any period of history, today in Russia with Putin or in Nazi Germany in the last century, or in Europe now for example, because we’re close to a new fascism.”

Only Claude, an older man who also spoke enthusiastically, was willing to be a bit critical. Not everything was to his taste.

“I thought most of the play was very good. I didn’t like the last scenes when Richard III appears trussed up in a corset and surgical collar, then takes them off and fences with the ghosts of all those he fears, and who are invisible to the audience.”

It has to be said that for what seemed to be near-unanimous approval, Ostermeier avoided one of the main risks in putting on a show at the Avignon IN. His Richard III premiered in February 2015 at the Schaubühne in Berlin.

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