Year of Shakespeare: Richard III

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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.

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

 

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:

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Author:Peter J Smith

Peter is Reader in Renaissance Literature at Nottingham Trent University. His publications include Social Shakespeare: Aspects of Renaissance Dramaturgy and Contemporary Society and Hamlet: Theory in Practice. He is UK correspondent of Cahiers Elisabéthains and in 2007 he co-edited a special number of the journal dedicated to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival.
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  • A fine review. The following is extracted from my own blog Shakespeare Travels, and brings in some references to the elements from Chinese traditional opera, too. I was particularly struck by the ‘square word calligraphy’ title on the stage at the beginning: A red sign emblazoned with black Chinese characters. At first sight, I thought it was Chinese characters, and then I looked at it more closely. Roman letters are arranged in a box to simultaneously reflect the English word (Richard, in this case) and resemble the strokes of a Chinese character. This encapsulated this production as a whole, as Shakespeare’s text was reconfigured through traditional (and non-traditional) Chinese performance codes to produce a performance that is recognisable but completely new, something that is intentionally designed to cross continents and cultures. The production was huaju, spoken theatre, but had incorporated many elements from traditional theatre forms such as Beijing Opera, jingju. For example, battles were symbolically choreographed as a flag-dance between the standard bearers. Whilst the sparkling eyed villain Richard confided to the audience with early modern/Brechtian candour, he was largely naturalistic. In contrast, Lady Anne delivered her lines with the high-pitched, stylized recitation style of a Beijing Opera female role. Likewise, her movements were slow, with very specific hand-gestures. Because the sound of Beijing Opera is very different from Western Opera, this can seem strange, sometimes alienating for Western audiences, yetI felt this added to the effectiveness of the juxtaposition, because another person’s grief is alienating and difficult. Its sudden intrusion into the duologue also added a sense of intercultural distancing. We stopped and noticed the hybridity, just as we had when we took a second look at the square-word calligraphy. Or at least, the Western and older Chinese audience did. For many young Chinese, new to theatre going, this increasingly Sinocised form of huaju may become the norm. The mixing of forms is often not as overt as in a touring or tourist production such as this, but it is there nonetheless. The production’s East/West audience also meant that it simultaneously contained different culturally specific semiotic codes. Thus, Chinese in the audience may have read Queen Elizabeth’s white handkerchief as an omen of her husband Edward’s demise, because in China white, not black, is the traditional colour for mourning. After his death, she wiped his throne with it as if mopping his brow, unable to let go. Despite these moments, I felt that the NTC played Richard III as tragicomedy. The actor playing Richard reminded me a little of Derek Jacobi in the Renaissance Theatre production I saw many years ago. Jacobi’s Richard was Vice, seducing the audience, stirring up the crowd, and making us understand, in a way that Ian McKellan’s terrifying film villain will never make us understand, just how the fictional Richard got away with what he did. The National theatre of China’s Richard shared many of the same techniques, if not the exact same cultural connotations: he entertained us with his villainy. When Lady Anne spat in his face, he lasciviously rubbed it in, as you say, like a man in an aftershave advertisement. Interestingly, however, in a borrowed green Globe coat and relocated into this nominally Christian space, he suggested the prelapsarian serpent, too. The two murderers were also comic – quite literally, their moves and facial gestures were those of the chou or traditional Chinese opera clowns. This was verified for me the next day, when pictures of the performers in their costumes in China were put on display in the foyer. The murderers wore the jingju make-up of the comedic character roles. As the noble Clarence slept, the murderers, who had just bamboozled the Keeper, crept around the stage, sharpening their swords on the soles of their shoes, then grappling with their soul’s conscience by signing themselves with the Christian cross, then sitting down to waste time and counting ‘one, two, three’ in English. When Lady Anne later doubled as the Young Prince, s/he carried a stick and pranced into London on an imaginary steed, again Beijing Opera style. If the props had arrived, the crop’s tassels would have indicated even more clearly that we were meant to see a horse. The costumes would have added to the spectacle, but the lack of them did nothing to diminish the impact of the players on the stage.

  • Intriguing article but you shy from the most important question when analysing Richard III: What was Gloucester like? It’s no secret he holds the play together, keeps the pace rattling along and is generally regarded as one of the most charismatic and fascinating depictions of evil ever concieved but how did he compare in this massive crazy Chinese production?? You certaintly tell of how he made the audience laugh (good, Richard does that, even if they are laughs of horror struck disbelief) but what about cringe, frown, gasp and avert thier eyes?? Chinese often ham things up and go wa-a-a-a-y OTT with thier villians so I’d be interested to know if there was any subtlety to this Richard? If there was – and I’m sure, there was, even if it escaped the Westerners in the audience – this sounds like a wicked production. And yes – ‘villian’ can also be read as ‘clown’ so it could be the perfect marriage of OTT Chinese baddie and Shakespeare!

    Hurrah for Chinese Shakespeare, Globe 2 Globe for real, long may it last!

  • Paul Edmondson

    Sounds wonderful – operatic in its overall tempo and conception. Sometimes it takes a visiting company to help us appreciate the playing space afresh.

  • Krista Bonello R. Giappone

     

    Thanks for this review, which sensitively draws out the
    beautiful cadences. I must admit however, that I wasn’t as impressed as you
    were by the production. I thought the bare-bones staging painfully accentuated
    the fact that there had been an over-reliance on the props and costumes. To
    pick one moment amongst many – I felt the nightmare was bland, the performers
    saying their lines in turn – this contrasts with the marvellously striking
    photo up in the foyer, which showed the nightmarish masks that were to be worn
    by the night-visitors. Margaret’s constant intensity didn’t do much to enhance
    the (rather dulled) menacing edge, and the witch-dimension wasn’t particularly
    well-used or interwoven into the production.

     

    As for the lively audience-response during the wooing-scene
    – Richard actually got a round of applause the day I watched it!

     

    I love your description of the balletic-acrobatic movement. My
    one regret there was that it wasn’t more consistently used. The two murderers,
    as you say, stood out – they were, indeed, one of the highlights of the
    production for me. We got a few glimpses of what the actor who played Richard
    could do, in terms of a more physical performance – the contortions and hints
    of the grotesque punctuating particular points, where he seemed to take on the
    deformities of Shakespeare’s Richard just for a moment – were more interesting
    than his generally declamatory style. And I agree that there was a more
    intensified and sustained physical performance in the monologue directly following
    the nightmare (eve of Bosworth) – which even managed to convey something
    approaching ‘true’ terror.

     

    There was a lingering Olivier-shaped shadow over certain
    moments; and on the whole, I thought it held back – it could have been more
    adventurous.

     

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