‘I am determined to prove a villain…’
Strange omens and physical deformities cloud the difficult birth of Richard III. Might it be better if this child had never been born? For Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, it bodes ill that her inscrutable son never begins to warm to her. Just as she can scarcely feel affection for him, he is spurned by everyone he meets. Later, as a young man, he proves utterly cold-blooded, ruthless and triumphant in the battles for the English crown. Can his thirst for power, unscrupulousness and destructive rage be understood as the result of a blighted childhood? Are the causes rooted in family circumstances and social relations, or is there simply no exhaustive explanation for the existence of egomaniacal, malicious people who hunger for power?
With Richard III, one of the greatest antiheroes of the theatrical canon enters the stage: shameless, greedy, violent, the very incarnation of evil. At the same time, he’s a star attraction within the Shakespearean pantheon: perceptive, witty, dissembling, seductive. He adeptly manipulates people, tells elaborate lies, virtuosically instrumentalizes others, and revels in self-aggrandizement. Shakespeare pulls off an ingenious coup that makes the role an extraordinary undertaking for the actor still to this day. It is the questions the playwright raises, rather than what it explains, that continue to fascinate us. What lies behind the appeal of this ‘villain’? Is he a pathological outlier, an aggrieved outlaw, or perhaps the embodiment of a system in its most coherent form? How should we account for the considerable approval he enjoys and the consent for his politics?
Shakespeare’s history plays Henry VI and Richard III form the starting point of Karin Henkel’s production. In Richard the Kid, the first part of the evening, she focusses on Richard’s childhood and family history, the brutish period before he came to power. For years, the houses of York and Lancaster had been fighting the ‘Wars of the Roses’; bitter and bloody battles for control of the English throne.
In Richard the King, the second part of the evening, Karin Henkel turns to the political environment surrounding the infamous ruler. Why does everyone play along, even though they know about Richard’s lies and duplicity? Do his supporters, who enable him to seize power even though they know how dangerous he is, feel the same vicious sense of joy? Does their own greed blind them? What role is played by ignorance, mistaken forbearance, cowardice, and others who systematically look away? How does Richard manage the cynical balancing act of having a deep loathing towards people while still winning them over for his purposes?
In Richard III, Shakespeare strikingly reveals the collective failure of an entire country and the warping of a troubled society, in which increasing brutality only feeds into the rise of a tyrant. An unsettling note is injected by the enjoyment we take in closely watching Richard III and his darkest machinations. What lies behind this? And what is it that makes us collaborators?
Karin Henkel has won multiple awards and directed a hugely successful production of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Rose Bernd at the Salzburg Festival in 2017. As in Rose Bernd, Lina Beckmann again takes on the title role.
Sybille Meier, Andrea Schwieter
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw