I had never visited the Barbican before, and I have to admit that visiting the complex was half the attraction. I wanted to see the venue, which I had trouble imagining, where the Royal Shakespeare Company regularly performed in London in the time of Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn. I had passed near the tower flats before, which from the outside streets appeared a half abandoned slum. As it turned out, the Barbican was beautiful. It appears, from within, more like an urban shelter of gardens, blue London winter light, and homes politely perched atop each other to allow for more public space. And the massive arts complex feels like a neighborhood version of the South Bank theatres, cinemas, and museums.
Visiting the Barbican for the first time, and being aware that Antony Sher had performed Richard III in that space with his remarkable spider-like sketches of the king, probably framed Thomas Ostermeier's Richard III for me. It also helped that I grabbed a front row ticket for sixteen pounds. Supposedly, the view was "obstructed" because the subtitles were at an angle, but I could read them perfectly well. [Those kind of London deals are an important part of what make the city a superior theatre town to New York.]
Ostermeier's Richard III played like a tennis match between Shakespeare and modern politics, each working together, and against each other. It was beautiful. Michael Billington claimed that Ostermeier's production had stripped the play of its politics. I strongly disagree, and wrote a lengthy comment about this on the Guardian's website. I admire Michael Billington very much--I just felt that he got this one wrong.
I thought I should go ahead and repost my response here on this website. What else is it for?
Here's the link to the comment: https://discussion.theguardian.com/comment-permalink/93476727
I found Thomas Ostermeier's production at the Barbican deeply political, and its contemporary relevance moved me greatly.
I felt that Ostermeier underlined two aspects of modern politics.
The first was a fearful and dangerous acquiescence to authoritarianism on the part political elites like Hastings and Buckingham, an acquiescence which we now see in the faces of operatives like Reince Priebus (former chair of GOP and now Trump's chief of staff), and perhaps even the MPs lining up to obediently bleat their way to Brexit.
To name a striking instance, the actor playing Buckingham, as he shuffled Dorset and Rivers off to their deaths, momentarily lost his nerve, turned white as a ghost, gripped the railing, and looked guiltily back at the audience: it was a brave and novel performance, rocking between private doubts and public sycophancy.
Another remarkable moment: The Hastings scenes, stripped of most of the weak lines about an incident of medieval adultery, focus solely on Hastings' commitment to institutions, and the vanity with which he crows against his opponents. In the case of Hastings, the institution he naively focuses on is the lineal inheritance of the crown. In the case of David Cameron, it was the sloppy outcome of an unprecedented (and disastrously planned) popular vote. Maintaining institutions takes a lot of hard work, and we continually see leaders fail to do the necessary groundwork needed to defend our liberal institutions against right-wing power grabs.
The second major theme I saw in Ostermeier's production was the solipsism of political leaders like Margaret of Anjou, Edward IV, Richard III, and Donald Trump. These are people that cannot understand politics except in terms of how it affects their own ego and sense of self. There is a disturbing tendency among the electorate to mistake emotional, shameless, "honest" speaking for political truth and effectiveness. I saw this reflected in Richard's "baring all" seduction of Lady Anne, as well as Richard's willingness to throw (somewhat effective) tantrums, cowing his followers into obedience.
Another consequence of solipsistic leaders like Shakespeare's Richard III is that they may fail to recognize when their methods stop working.
After his dismissal of Buckingham, Richard III smears white cream across his face, creating a wrinkle-free version of himself. He resembles the doll-like children he had murdered moments before. And then he tries the exact same trick of seduction that he used on Lady Anne with the bereaved Queen Elizabeth, only he fails to realize that eventually the charm wears off.
I imagine Boris Johnson felt a bit like that after his Brexit "victory," as the premiership slipped away from him. I also imagine that Donald Trump will feel that way some time after he drags the United States into another unwinnable war, and his presidency finally sputters to a halt.
The dangerous charismatic politics of today no longer mimic the fascist political behavior of the Second World War. Dressing up the actors in fascist uniforms made for a useful reading of the 20th century, but not necessarily the 21st. Mr. Billington is correct: it would be inexcusable, given where we stand in 2017, to perform one of Shakespeare's history plays and strip it of historical relevance, but that is not what has happened here, even if the emphasis on moral cowardice, sycophancy, and solipsism diminished the play as a specific metaphor for a certain type of fascism. But I think Ostermeier's version was more realistic: it doesn't take a handful of evil geniuses, it just takes several hundred fools and an egoist with charisma.
Shakespeare proves the best playwright in town nine times out of ten, not just because of his creative invention with the English language, but because his plays inspire living artists to push themselves to new imaginative heights: to riff of previous interpretations, to shake us with modern political concerns, to tweak line readings, to shake off the past and tell the story as if it has never been told before. His flexibility with form and content is part of his appeal. I think that someday Americans may begin to look at Eugene O'Neill in a similar way, if we are afforded the opportunity to experience more of his work on a regular basis. But for now, there is only Shakespeare, and perhaps Homer for the tweedier set.