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This was one of only four performances here of Claus Peymann’s magnificent 2001 Berliner Ensemble production of Richard II. The central visual metaphor may be overdone: an accretion of earth and water on Achim Freyer’s spare monochrome set rather belabours the point that faction and civil war are turning the governance of England into a quagmire.
Much of the delivery – strongly declarative, from predominantly white-made-up faces – may owe more to the company’s Brechtian history than to Stratford sensibilities. But it made its points (and, above all, Shakespeare’s) beautifully and powerfully.
Michael Maertens may be the finest Richard I have ever seen, Sam West and Kevin Spacey not excepted. His is not a negligent king, simply an insufficiently commanding one; he exudes a great emotional clarity at every instant, and can find a wealth of resonance in a single word. Manfred Karge is a looming, Machiavellian presence as the Duke of York, and there is even a running gag in which Hanna Jürgens’ oft-fainting Queen is revived by water.
Thomas Brasch’s translation is described as “faithful to the original, with additional wordplay” – boy, is there ever? Love’s Labour’s Lost does not pun or romp as much as Richard’s exchange with the dying John of Gaunt. But it is shot through with a sardonicism that is perfectly in keeping with a play from which no one emerges unsullied. A bleak, mordant delight.
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