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German actor Lars Eidinger, performing his arresting Richard III at the Adelaide Festival next month, talks about Shakespeare, Trump and the value of being open to contradiction. By Peter Craven.

Lars Eidinger on Richard III, Hitler and Trump

Lars Eidinger
Credit: Heiko Schäfer

The preview for the Schaubühne’s production of Richard III was so creepy and so lurid that you could almost smell the reek of greasepaint even as you tasted the blood. And what rampant experimentalism flying like a standard, and what curling lips of mockery and snakelike slither. Lars Eidinger is the king of the classical fringe. The man whose Hamlet – from within a fat suit, at one point discarded – was one of the most charismatic performances many members of the Sydney Festival audience had seen or ever expected to see, even though this was a Prince of Denmark who was gross, unlovely, stewed in the corruption of which he could not escape the stench.

Eidinger, whose Richard III, in a production by the reigning magus of the Schaubühne, Thomas Ostermeier, opens in Adelaide next month, is a man of quiet charm, for all his histrionic rages and iron stridencies. He’s blond, even-featured, 40 years old and he sounds utterly nice – nett, as the Germans put it – as he chats from Germany on the phone.

He has been making, in contrast to all his onstage pyrotechnics and modernities, a Netflix series for Tom Tykwer, which is set in a Weimar Republic, pre-Hitler Germany, so bygone as to seem like a dream.

“This is a Berlin,” Eidinger says, with wonder in his voice, “that was completely destroyed. I mean this is a crime story set in the ’20s. But how crazy and dangerous the Nazis were, and the freedom that was before them was so advanced, and then what came after the Second World War was in some ways so grey. This story is about two Holocaust scientists who are misanthropic and choleric.”

You can sense why the German theatre is such an ongoing iconoclastic circus and why Ostermeier can persuade you that he’s presenting the Greatest Show on Earth, even if you disagree with his principles. Think of his production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, full of rock music and paint and improvised Q&A, and yet such a transfiguration of Ibsen’s civic parable.

It’s partly because of this dark matter of Germany, and the way Nazism stained the very idea of a national tradition. “It affects me as an artist and my connection to language,” Eidinger says. “Because the Nazis misused the whole idea of rhetoric and discredited it, we Germans are a bit ashamed of our language. We never celebrate it the way the English and the French do.”

Not that this is remotely believable. All sorts of Erlkings seem to rise up out of the dark magic of the sort of imagining that goes to make up an Eidinger–Ostermeier Richard III and yet the Walpurgisnacht and carnivalesque aspect of falderal and the blood-licking clearly presupposes a purging, a wiping clean of the pomp and circumstance of language, its stately panoramic glamour.

“The language of [German Shakespearean translators] Schlegel-Tieck was very flowery and very influenced by Romanticism,” Eidinger says, referring to the earlier venerated translation, dropped in favour of Marius von Mayenburg’s for this production. “Now we have something much more alive with vulgarity. In Schlegel-Tieck, when Hamlet says in his last line, ‘The rest is silence’, they translate it as schweigen. Here it is translated as stille, and with stille no one has to be present.”

He says that this attempt to refresh Shakespeare in the German imagination also led them back to Shakespeare’s original. “Especially in Richard III, we decided to add some English lines. I get to say, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ and then at the other end, ‘No creature loves me.’

“It’s nice to have the real Shakespeare.”

He seems to think it’s a necessary defence against the people in the audience who sit reading their Schlegel-Tieck as if it were the only possible Shakespeare. And Eidinger is careful to escape the net of every kind of tradition.

I mention Laurence Olivier’s ringing tenor-voiced Richard only a few years after Hitler – if not in its stage incarnation contemporary with him – and he says, as if apologetically, “He was the greatest, I know, but I’ve tried not to build up any relationship with the famous.”

He quotes Charles Manson – in a world of other charismatic figures of evil – saying that if you look down at him you’ll see a fool but if you look straight at him you’ll see yourself.

“And people don’t want to look into their own faces and admit how much – even though they want to refuse to identify with Hitler – they look into their own faces and see him. People loved Hitler. They like to say their grandparents were in the Resistance, but nearly all of them were Nazis.

“One of the big fascinations with Shakespeare is that he showed the conflicts mankind will meet with such frankness. If art could change the world… the whole explanation is there, if they can see themselves, in the mirror of Shakespeare.”

Perhaps inevitably, the conversation shifts to the election of Donald Trump. “The people were really shouting,” Eidinger says. “The parallels are so obvious.”

He broods around the character of Richard, this crippled psychopath of a self-made king, hacking his way through with a bloody axe. “He’s fought in the war for his brother and gets nothing for himself. He gets the girl next to her husband’s grave.”

Yet there is a weird sympathy in Eidinger for the spider king for whom the dreadful happened long ago and who is intent on visiting it on everybody else. He’s fascinated by the way that Richard, like Hitler, like Trump, wins against all the odds.

“That’s something all the people can understand,” Eidinger muses. “The leader who makes us all into real heroes.”

And this master of the Schaubühne somersault, this wacko of a theatrical extrovert, says something I’ve never heard a Richard III say before. “What an idea! He takes revenges, but imagine – to take revenge for something you did to yourself!”

Eidinger talks about those late words of lament the night before Bosworth Field, the battle that will be the end of him, when Richard says, and Eidinger repeats it, with a bit of a stumble, in the original English: “There is no creature loves me; And if I die, no soul shall pity me.”

No soul shall pity me. It sounds as if he’s saying it from the bottom of a well when Eidinger ponders it, even though in any English language version – in Olivier’s or Antony Sher’s or Ian McKellen’s – it sounds like the merest gesture, in the midst of melodrama and malevolence, towards the tragic perspective Shakespeare won’t want to look at until tragedy and villainy come together in Macbeth.

“In the conflict I create,” Eidinger says, as if he were Richard, “everyone is pitying everybody but nobody feels pity for me.”

He steps back to brood on the character he projects.

“For me it’s a real tragedy. Pity – he makes you feel that. It’s really tragic.”

Eidinger says he’s not a frightening Richard, but when he was at drama school he was told that he’d never be any good as an evil character, perhaps because of his choirboy looks.

“It made me really angry. Everybody wants to be Mephisto rather than Faust. So I played Franz Moor in Schiller’s The Robbers. He’s a cliché of an evil character, he’s stolen from Richard III – in fact he’s a hard copy of Richard III – and it was the greatest success I had at acting school.”

He was later to direct The Robbers for himself at the Schaubühne in 2008, and says he was so jealous of the actor who played his Richard-like role he did a terrible thing. “To be honest … I cut his great monologue.”

Eidinger is confessional like that, interested in the element of introspection that goes into his conception of a role.

“You know, Richard is so very corrupt, it’s as if he’s without the stain of corruption. He’s so obviously lying all the time, it’s like he’s honest. He’s the one person the other characters can look in the face and see what’s there.”

He talks about the idea of playing Richard as a clown and the fear it creates when you play with works like that. He talks, too, about his Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, for Benedict Andrews, and all the ambiguities there are between a role and the emotional reality.

Then he says, as if he’s thinking between languages, about his crookback, “The secret for me is that he never allows the clown to sit in my mouth.”

Not all of Eidinger’s Elizabethan creeps have been hits. He played Ferdinand, the creepiest character in that creepiest of Jacobean masterpieces, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

“It was a very big disaster,” he says. “It was completely wrong. We did it in a very big space and it was too far from the audience.”

Hamlet, of course, made Eidinger into a star of the kind of fireworks theatre he and Ostermeier have made their own. “Oh, ja” – he always says ja, a bit like a Hooray Henry – “Absolutely, Hamlet was my great role. Two hundred and 80 performances and it still works, it still gets lines of people. The rush was to show him as an anti-hero and then to show him as just as corrupt as the society he is in. To show him first as a human being and then to get the surliness, the way he’s a bit homophobic, the nastiness and ugliness.”

Hamlet, I suggest, uncontroversially, tends to be a role in which actors play themselves.

“Absolutely,” Eidinger says, with great vehemence, “and the play is the first thing, the last thing, the one big thing. One of the reasons why it’s always about the actor and about our personalities is that there’s nothing you cannot express in Hamlet. Everything that is in you, there is no sky to stop you from showing that. Just think, that most elementary question: ‘To be or not to be?’ For me life is a bigger lie than fiction.”

This principle feeds his performances. It runs right through to the moment the audience sees Hamlet’s fat suit is a fat suit. “As an actor I am completely ‘not method’,” he says. “I’m the opposite. I see myself on stage as if I’m holding a puppet. My character is my puppet. And that’s more interesting than pretending to be someone else. I can stay so close to myself because I am most truthful to the fact that I’m playing someone else.”

This sounds a bit like Brecht, doesn’t it?

“It’s absolutely what Brecht was on about,” he says. “To be open to what’s happening, to be open to the contradiction and the paradox – that is our only hope.”

Eidinger is fascinated by the mirroring of theatre and also its aspect as a great hall of mirrors. “In every play,” he says, “there is the point where the character is. But then there is also the point where the mirror looks at the mirror and gives back the image of the mirror.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Breaking Bard". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.

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