Richard III, The Globe, 29 April 2012
With their costumes and props delayed in transit, The National Theatre of China had to make do with makeshift replacements to keep the show running. But this minor inconvenience did nothing to dim either the spectacle or the audience’s reaction to this Mandarin production.
It was remarkable for its treatment of the play both structurally and stylistically.
An extensive prologue depicted the background to the main story.
The banners of the warring houses of Lancaster and York engaged in symbolic battle. One banner forced the other to the ground, marking the Yorkist victory. Edward IV was crowned and dressed in the yellow robe of state, his subjects bowing in traditional Chinese obeisance.
Richard (Zhang Dongyu) turned to face us, his stare hinting at his dark thoughts. Three witches borrowed from Macbeth, complete with chappy fingers on their skinny lips, prophesied to him that the king would be deposed by someone with a name containing the letter G.
Richard whispered this prophecy to the king, after which the main action of the plan began.
Zhang Dongyu was the only actor whose name was specifically linked to a part. His Richard was not physically deformed, but he occasionally twisted his body into a contortion to express Richard’s warped character.
Many minor characters, including the Duchess of York were cut, as were sequences such as the attempted wooing of Queen Elizabeth’s daughter. There was only one prince, played by a young woman who trembled fearfully on hearing Richard refer to the Tower of London. And of Queen Elizabeth’s relatives, only Rivers was present to offer her support.
The role of Margaret was expanded so that she became a regular feature on stage gloating over the deaths of those she had cursed. Leaning on a staff and sporting long, jet black hair, she spluttered her curses in a coarse voice.
Another important aspect of this production was its distinctive Chinese styling.
This ranged in extent from minor details, such as Hastings performing Tai Chi at his home, through to the acrobatics of the murderers sent to kill Clarence. They somersaulted and then creeped their way into Clarence’s chamber, not noticing Brackenbury until, circling round him, they looked up and saw him peering down at them.
Clarence’s death was marked by the killers draping a large black cloth over him and then walking him away to a drone of drums. The same murderers returned to dispatch Hastings and Buckingham in the identical manner.
But the most striking stylistic effect was the use of the conventions of Beijing opera in the portrayal of Lady Anne.
Instead of accompanying the funeral cortege of Henry VI, she shuffled onstage alone to the sound of percussive clicks, her hands in a graceful pose, before scattering funereal white flowers on the ground.
She spoke in an intensely beautiful manner, her voice issuing pure musical tones that despite their clipped restraint, pierced the air like darts.
When Richard tried to woo her, she spat at him, but even that gesture was restrained and stylised, to the point of looking polite. Richard rubbed the invisible spittle into his face as if it were aftershave.
Lady Anne took Richard’s sword and stood behind him with the weapon raised above her head, but could not strike him, nor could she respond when he pointed his own sword at his chest, inviting her to kill him. Even at these violent moments, Lady Anne maintained her poetic poise.
Her second appearance, lamenting her life married to Richard, saw Lady Anne in another wonderfully stylised sequence just as gripping as the first.
Although very different to standard western stage conventions, there was something about the Beijing opera style that felt ideally suited to such scenes in Shakespeare.
Voice and movement were all carefully arranged to express poetically the innermost thoughts and feelings of the character. It did not look in any way naturalistic.
But standard western Shakespeare already makes use of the stylised rhythmic effects inherent in the text, such as iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which are themselves far from naturalistic speech.
The Lady Anne sequences could be seen as the Chinese translation’s way of rendering, and perhaps even superseding, the aesthetic qualities of the language of the English original.
The production contained some other interesting touches.
The scene in which the citizens of London discussed the death of the king and the succession was staged with two Chinese street hawkers. They cried out selling their wares, before meeting in the centre of the stage to discuss events. The hawkers then proceeded onwards, crying out as before.
Buckingham ventured into the yard to rouse the groundlings to support the pious Richard, who stood on a table fingering prayer beads accompanied by two holy men, making us the Londoners.
When Tyrell returned from murdering the princes, he crept in wearing a long coat under which another man crouched with just his head visible, possibly representing the fact that Tyrell had subcontracted the job to other murderers.
Tyrell was now wearing red gloves, symbolising shed blood. Richard wore these gloves for the rest of the performance.
As the play entered its final scenes, we saw Richmond for the first time as he and Richard engaged in their first skirmish.
Richard fell asleep on a table and was tormented by the ghosts of his victims, who stood over him and cursed him. This caused him to fall from the table and seek shelter under it.
Flags flew over the stage once again as the concluding battle resulted in Richard lying injured centre stage.
Anyone familiar with the play would have recognised the repeated Chinese phrases directly translating Richard’s famous final lines.
He climbed onto the throne and stood holding his crown in one hand above his head. Once again, he called for a horse, while Richmond and his men watched in formal array.
Richmond drew his sword run it through Richard, and shortly after the soldiers speared him in one swift movement. Richard slowly collapsed on to the throne and Richmond gave him a push off onto the ground. Richard continued to roll, coming to a halt downstage.
Richmond placed the crown on his own head and was dressed in the yellow robe of state. He took his place on the throne to the sound of ominous droning music in an exact replay of the coronations of both Edward and Richard.
After a pause, the voice of Margaret could be offstage and Richard rose from the ground briefly to repeat his piteous demand for his horse. And with that the play was done.
This staging of the end of the play hinted that there is no such thing as a new era in history and that new beginnings are always haunted by the past that gave rise to them.
While the production was compelling and powerful, it could have been even more spectacular with the company’s own costumes and props.
After the rapturous reception they received, The National Theatre of China has every incentive to return at some point and present this production in its full colours.