This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Richard III, National Theatre of China, dir. Wang Xiaoying, 29 April 2012 at The Globe, London.
By Peter J. Smith, Nottingham Trent University
Note: In the review that follows, I have been unable to identify performers by name. The production’s cast list credits them only as ‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’ but doesn’t ascribe particular characters to particular names. The twelve performers were: Zhang Dongyu; Wu Xiaodong; Chen Qiang; She Nannan; Zhang Yifang; Zhang Xin; Wang Nan; Xu Mengke; Cai Jingchao; Li Jianpeng; Wang Lifu and Chang Di.
In the cast-list is a colour picture of this production with Richard flanked by two witches. He is dressed in elaborate robes and crown while they are weirdly masked and one carries a Gandalf-like staff. The production was preceded by Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director, announcing that all of the production’s equipment was in a shipping container stranded somewhere between Beijing and London. The costumes and props we were about to see, he explained, had been cobbled together at the last minute from the Globe’s stores. Given the superlative acting, the balletic movement and the astonishing vocal range I, for one, was relieved to see the production unadorned by visual extravagance; it was as though we were seeing it in rehearsal and the simplicity of the staging made perfect sense in a theatre which is supposed to (but all too rarely does) stage the plays ‘naked’.
The production opened with red and white banners warring against each other to the battle-like sounds of heavy drumming – Wang Jianan sat in the balcony and punctuated the production with a huge range of percussive rhythms and textures throughout. Edward IV was enthroned and the court knelt in allegiance to him. As he attempted to declare his governance, he collapsed into a fit of sickly coughing and the courtiers surrounded and cosseted him, leaving Richard downstage who turned to us and announced his mission to destroy his brothers and assume the crown.
While the stage picture of Richard downstage centre isolated him from the court, his malevolent autonomy was suddenly undermined. Three witches in long black cassocks and short black capes, appeared and wove their way about him, fixing him between their orbits like a bewildered Macbeth. Right from the outset, then, this was a Richard who was ‘determinèd [as in preordained rather than resolute], to prove a villain’ (1.1.30). As that line suggests, Richard can be read as fortune’s fool or as a Machiavellian, completely free and unfettered by any chivalric or familial obligations. This production decided to do away with that ambiguity and read Richard in the former sense, as the plaything of forces altogether larger than the political field. The scene of the mourning queens (4.4) had the three women suddenly morph into the witches to torture Richard’s conscience on the eve of Bosworth. While above, on the balcony, Margaret appeared at each of the many deaths to utter maledictions down upon Richard’s various victims, the proximity of the witches to Richard himself suggested that his ambitions were serving a greater force than the discarded queen.
Paradoxically though, this was a Richard of heroic stature. Without the bodily deformities that usually complement the role, this was a physically imposing and attractive protagonist. Lady Anne trembled as he gave her the sword but she never really seemed capable of dispatching him – though his visible relief in a barely concealed sigh prompted audience laughter. He disarmed her insult, patting her spittle around his chin and neck as though applying after-shave. His rejection of Buckingham veered dangerously close to a physical attack while his sense of public display, standing on a table, while seeking the approval of the London populace, was the opposite of Coriolanus’s nervous reticence: here was a leader – charismatic, bold, presidential.
The two murderers, Richard’s henchmen, were extraordinary acrobats. Their slow-motion crawling towards the supine Clarence was accomplished in an affectation of pitch-dark, their deadly curved swords skimming each other’s heads. The various assassinations were things of balletic beauty as they leapt off tables and somersaulted past each other. Though lost on this reviewer, they constantly aroused the laughter of the Mandarin speakers in the audience (one of whom told me at the interval that they were speaking an equivalent of London Cockney). While Richard himself, in many productions, is a source of comedy, descending as he does from the medieval Vice, here the conspicuous murderers drew the play’s comic focus.
On the eve of Bosworth, Richard’s paranoia (5.5.131f) led to him writhing on a table throttling himself so that his psychological torment was physicalised outwardly. Wounded, he crawled to the throne and shouted for a horse (5.6.13) before being surrounded and speared by the opposing army. Richmond was crowned while the witches wailed his triumph. Richard, lying apparently dead on the fore-stage, suddenly roused himself and repeated his call for a horse. A look of horror passed over the courtiers. Richard’s vicious afterlife had only just begun.
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Want to know what other audience members thought of the production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:
Listen below to an interview with the director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
Here’s what others thought about this production: