China’s Charming Tragic Hero…
National Theatre of China arrived this week to perform Richard III in Mandarin. A huge container full of their exquisite set and costumes did not, and was still wandering around the North Sea somewhere when Dominic Dromgoole introduced the company to the audience on Saturday. With the immense support of the Globe team, however, substitute costumes and props were rapidly assembled, in time for a stellar performance from the Chinese company. Prior to their visit to the Globe, National Theatre of China performed Richard III only once in Beijing, to an invited audience of Chinese leaders (and luckily their designs were photographed, which allowed us to admire the sets and costumes later displayed in the Globe foyer).
I was intrigued and captivated by the performance style, which was generally quite presentational with emotional truth behind stylised physical and vocal delivery. Lady Ann’s mourning scene during which Richard woos the widow, exemplified this style. Her wailing song was both lyrical and rough, her hand gave a perceptible flutter as she reached for Richard’s sword, and stage pictures were suspended during particular moments of poetry and tension.
Textured percussion underscored the scenes and propelled transitions. The rhythm often marked a character’s change in thought, and helped to distinguish dialogue from direct addresses to the audience. At times the interplay between the music and the text was so fluid that it would be impossible to say whether the music underlined the narrative, or whether the emotional journey was derived from the music.
A pair of executioners displayed some wonderful Chinese martial arts, which came across as a sort of acrobatic clowning, with the kind of precision that makes brilliance look so simple. The comedy of the duo flowed right through the first murder scene (that of Clarence), with the effect that we didn’t mind his death as much as we would have done were it not part of the clowns’ pas de deux. But it wasn’t only comedy that kept us from being horrified at the murder. Richard himself kept us on his side with a winning charisma that charmed the audience from the get-go. He was not portrayed with the traditional physical deformities, but instead as an able-bodied hero. There was a general sense of support for him to take the throne, reinforced when the audience joined in the salute at his coronation.
This was the first History play of the festival; however with such a charming hero, this Richard III could well be counted amongst the tragedies. In fact, director Wang Xiaoying included the three witches from Macbeth, which created obvious parallels between the ambitious, murderous leaders. “This is one of his most tragic plays,” Wang said. “It has always been acclaimed as a masterpiece, and as famous as Hamlet. It reflected different sides of human nature, with great potential to tap.”
- Jane Moriarty
My second play during the festival; my first in Mandarin. I hadn’t seen or read Richard III in ages so I hoped I’d remember what it was all about! Those pesky Yorks and Lancasters can get a bit confusing.
I don’t know why but I love the sound of Mandarin so watching Shakespeare with a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon feel was great! Queen Anne swirling the sword around Richard with graceful, dance-like movements as she decides whether or not to strike him in the seduction scene was beautiful, while the acrobatic sword-wielding hilarious murderers were not only fascinating but provided surprising comic relief!
The sounds that percussionist Wang Jianan created added incredible atmosphere to each scene and clearly punctuated the storytelling. Though it was such a shame the company’s own costume and props hadn’t arrived in time for their first performance, it didn’t detract at all from enjoying the show. I particularly liked the simplicity of placing a black cloth over each of Richard’s victims as each met his untimely death.
It was very interesting that in this production Richard had no physical deformity, but was utterly charming and charismatic, and it was easy to see why the characters and the audience were swayed by him!
I always enjoy watching the audiences at the Globe, seeing people gripped by the performance. I found it particularly interesting during this performance as there was clearly both a large percentage of the audience who spoke Mandarin as well as those, like me, who didn’t understand a word. Seeing some people laugh and respond to specific lines which other people didn’t understand made me think of the separation in Shakespeare’s audience, where those with a Latin or French education would have understood words and phrases that those without such an education wouldn’t have had a clue about. We don’t usually get such a clear separation of understanding between different sections of the audience in a performance of the plays today and I found it a really intriguing and enjoyable experience.
That Excellent Grand Tyrant of the Earth
We began feeling devastated on behalf of the National Theatre of China, on their first ever visit to these shores because, as Dominic Dromgoole (Globe Artistic Director) announced, the shipping container carrying most of the set and costumes for their production of Richard III was “floating somewhere off Felixstowe.”
The joy of this performance (if not the festival as a whole) was only supplemented and enriched by the sense of it having arrived against the odds. A table and chairs seemingly dragged from the back of a Globe store cupboard made a charmingly odd counter-note to director Wang Xiaoying’s Peking Opera-influenced stylisation: every movement invested with an almost ritualistic poise and intensity. It didn’t matter in the slightest that the crown the Duke of Gloucester aspired to was more Fisherprice than English Regalia – the composed, daimio-like menace with which he did so made our skin crawl. And with Richard that’s a must.
The rain held off, and by the impressively early time of 9.45pm the “abortive, rooting hog” had been brought to bay. There was a sense of the unknown language beginning to glimmer tantalisingly just under the surface. It was as if the notion of having ‘tuned in’ over the past couple of hours was not entirely illusory. The eruption of fellow-feeling that is peculiar to the Globe was only intensified by the parameters of this mind-boggling event.