Edinburgh International Festival: Shakespeare

To mark the fourth centenary since Shakespeare's death, we review the best and the worst of Edinburgh International Festival's Shakespeare adaptations of 2016

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 29 Aug 2016

Shake [★★☆☆☆]

In Dan Jemmett’s reimagining of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has been taken to the beach, and not a classy beach of white sand and tingling cocktails. Although the players speak in French, this is clearly inspired by the British seaside of yesteryear – run down beach huts, jokebook gags, ventriloquists’ dummies and all. And in true British seaside style, what may at first seem like a good dose of hearty fun soon wears thin, leaving you to wistfully dream of warmer, more romantic climates. Like, for example, the coast of Illyria, where the original Twelfth Night was set…

To be fair to Jemmett and his production, the thinking behind this reinterpretation is sound. By stuffing the show with slapstick, corny jokes and silly wigs, the aim is clearly to return the play to its crowd-pleasing, chaotic origins; this piece of vaudeville takes Shakespeare’s love of comic disguises and runs away with it. The problem is that, despite making the entire piece a clown show, it is not particularly funny. Something Shakespeare knew well was the power of comic scenes to lighten the intensity of serious dramatic passages, or to send them up and expose characters’ self absorption or pomposity. Yet, while Shake is scatty and erratic in tone, it is also flat. All scenes are played for comic effect; there is nothing the comedy acts as relief for. Indeed, after some of the intentionally bad jokes begin to grate slightly, it is the ‘comedy’ itself that one wants some relief from. These characters are caricatures – almost as wooden as the dummy Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

There are some bold and some genuinely entertaining moments. Antonio Gil Martinez’s turn as Malvolio certainly raised laughs. Yet, like all the others, Malvolio is played for chuckles throughout. The full humour of the fake letter scene is lost, when humour is pounded into every moment. Twelfth Night has genuine transformations and revelations; Shake has wig changes and moustache disguises. [EH]

Richard III [★★★★☆]

Prolific theatre director Thomas Ostermeier is famous for his innovative takes on Shakespeare with Berlin theatre company Schaubühne, having previously toured with Hamlet in the UK, also based on Marius von Mayenburg’s translations. Ostermeier orchestrates his drama around his actors and in Lars Eidinger he believes he has a near perfect Richard III for his modern, Germanic take. Eidinger, one of Germany’s most exciting stage actors certainly has the presence, the laboured physicality and the grizzly charm needed for his iteration of Richard to convince.  

Richard III starts with a necessary prelude; we’re explained the context of Edward IV’s factious court – having defended his continued reign in the War of the Roses, he has controversially married Elizabeth Woodville – not only a commoner but also *gasp* a widow! Then the play opens with a bang, reminiscent of EIF 2015’s Lanark, sharing its infectiously joyous, seedy partying scene in a drab setting and one isolated, troubled outsider. The court, including King and Queen (Thomas Bading and Eva Meckbach) enter stage vice-like from the audience, dressed in glitzy Gatsby-esque finery – all black sequined dresses and white blazers with stylishly undone silk bow ties, champagne popping and booming party poppers full of gold and silver glitter. They laugh, chatter, kiss and drink, lustily celebrating Edward’s victory against Lancaster. The champagne foam seeps into the sand, with the glitter lighting up the dust and dirt. For the next 150 minutes, the Lyceum’s stage collects all waste laid on it, onto the champagne-soaked sand and shining tinsel go gallons of blood, potato shavings, salad cream slop and spit; all the grotesque, organic outpourings of Richard’s wicked machinations come to ugly, bodily fruition.   

For this brief celebratory scene, the bare, flat, minimalist metal structure of two floors and a pole, invoking gallows and medieval cruelty, is lit up before the courteers disappear into the grimy tapestried doors. Richard, an outsider to the festivities, was instrumental in his brother Edward’s victory but feels alienated all the same. Superficially disfigured, with a black pillow strapped to his back for his hunchback, black straps around his head and face, and a elephantine shoe for his clubbed foot, Eidinger’s Richard sees himself as an uncourtly beast, unfit for “normal” human desires such as love and sex, and so determines to prove a villain. In this way, perhaps Shakespeare’s ableist obsession with a disfigured body equating an evil, disturbed mind is to a small extent challenged by Ostermeier. Richard’s problem seems to be the way he excludes himself as disfigured – stripping naked when trying to seduce grieving Anne (Jenny Kӧnig) he appears an able bodied man. Later on Richard’s hand sticks into an arthritic claw, suggesting his deformity is psychosomatic and resulting from his psychopathic behaviour. However, by still having disability as a signifier of a rotting soul, Ostermeier seems to both have his ableist Shakespearian cake and eat it too.

As well as a veritable monster, Richard is also a charismatic anti-hero cum rockstar who raps not only Shakespeare in English but Tyler the Creator (“The devil doesn’t wear Prada/I’m clearly in a fucking white tee.”) It’s a risky strategy but Eidinger is electrifying enough to pull it off.  A 50s style mic hanging from a bungee cord on the ceiling, complete with spotlight, allows for Richard to soliloquise to us, the audience, in a low conspiratorial growl, treating us as friends he can plot with, threateningly smacking the mic into the audience when he pleases, swinging on the cord himself menacingly. He laughs when he has bent an innocent’s will to his amoral logic, he lasciviously taunts us, ad libbing when it pleases him (at the first night’s showing, Eldinger rudely demanded if an elderly women in the front row was dead and asked if a man had that day licked his wife.) It’s a comical yet disturbing device, forcing us to identify with this child murdering, Machiavellian serial killer. His jumping on and off stage further blurs the fourth wall, identifying his base instincts with our own darkest desires, his perverse meteing out of what he sees as justice, particularly his misogyny, tacitly implying reactionary social attitudes within us and wider society. [RB]

Measure for Measure [★★★★☆]

A stripped down text and intense, passionate acting create a searing interpretation of Measure for Measure which emphasises the modern relevance of this notoriously problematic ‘problem’ play. A brilliant co-production marrying the skills of director Declan Donnellan and the designer, Nick Ormerod’s Cheek by Jowl with the Pushkin Theatre.

Large red boxes, whether city walls, interior corridors or rooms, suggest the claustrophobia and paranoia of a state of surveillance. The production starts with a phalanx of all the cast marching round the set which is tedious at first but becomes more and more dramatic as a crowd swirls round the stage between scenes, evoking further lack of privacy and turmoil.

The plot is simple: a Duke hands over power to his deputy, Angelo and disguises himself as a friar to keep watch, but the resulting moral issues are murky. Andrei Kuzichev brings a chilling blandness to the role of Angelo, smiling like a jackal, his hands entwining. Merciless in the letter of the law: torture and death the punishment for ‘fornication’ and yet he secretly perpetrates sexual abuse; he knows no one will believe his victim, Isabella’s claim if she is raped. Sadly, we know too well how this reflects our recent history. Two attempted rape scenes are shown, the more powerful for the matter-of-fact depiction.

Isabella, played by Anna Khalilulina with electrifying integrity, has the difficult part of a nun who cares more about losing her virginity and consequent damnation in hell than her brother’s life. Yet she does not object when the returned duke claims her as a bride. This production leaves her reaction unclear but fair play, that’s a muddle Shakespeare did not solve.

Alexander Arsentyev as the Duke is superb whether troubled or commanding. Alexander Feklistov as the degenerate Lucio is a highlight, with his suggestive ever-moving facial expressions and waving fan. The stunning acting throughout surely shows that the legacy of Stanislavski lives on. [SG]

Shake, The Lyceum, run ended. French with English subtitles Measure for Measure, The Lyceum, run ended. Russian with English subtitles Richard III, The Lyceum, run ended. German with English subtitles