at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon * * *
Review by Terry Grimley
One of the world's most renowned theatre companies and a direct inspiration for the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Berliner Ensemble contributed just four performances to Stratford's Complete Works festival.
Taking over the thrust stage of the Courtyard but converting it temporarily into a conventional proscenium theatre, Claus Peymann's award-winning 2001 production seemed disconcertingly like a parody of what you might imagine German theatre to be.
At the outset we were confronted with a bleak stage – black floor, white walls – with just a tap and a bleeding corpse. The corpse belonged to the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder precipitates the series of events leading to the deposition of the king.
The characters were all dressed in black and white, with whitened faces. Northumberland, Bolingbroke's promoter, looked like Nosferatu in additional red-eye make-up, tailcoat, drainpipes and boots. York, brandishing the swordstick with which he dispatches Richard, looked like Dr Caligari.
In other words we were in a retro-world of German expressionism where slicked-back hairstyles, bowler hats and greatcoats evoked the vintage years of Brecht and Weill.
The acting (in German, with English surtitles) was full of expressionist mannerism as well, particularly Veit Schubert's comically unctuous Bolingbroke. It struck me that in English theatre we still start from the assumption that the rise and fall of kings is a matter of tragic weight, whereas here it was simply ridiculous. Or at least so it might seem until Michael Maertens came to deliver the imprisoned Richard's reflections on the hollow crown.
Picking up a reference to the townspeople throwing dirt at Richard as he is conveyed to the Tower, Peymann has dirt thrown at the pristine walls by unseen hands, so that by the end Richard's prison, and by implication his realm, was transformed into a pigsty. Henry IV was left to hose down the walls in a final image of surreal tragi-comedy.
How strange, by the way, to hear John of Gaunt's "this England..." speech in German, albeit in a somewhat edited form.