Bare Bones Brilliance

At the end of the National Theatre of China’s first performance of Richard III on April 28 afternoon at Shakespeare’s Globe, when the actors took the curtain call with a traditional Chinese bow – something they don’t usually do when performing in China – the audience could feel in the actors a release of tension as well as an overwhelming sense of pride and fulfillment. They must have felt they were representing China in a “Shakespeare Olympics” at the Globe to Globe festival, but the production’s set and costumes had yet to arrive and the actors had to perform in hastily put together basic stand-in set and costumes. Nevertheless, the virtuosity of their craft held the audience rapt throughout the performance.

Publicity materials released in Beijing before the company left for London highlighted that the production had been specially created for Globe to Globe to “bring Chinese culture out to meet with the world’s different races, different languages, and different cultural backgrounds, to interact and communicate with one another under the banner of Shakespeare.”

To present Chinese culture, the production design included: a huge white backdrop printed with red words like ‘power’, ‘curse’, ‘benefit’, ‘lie’, ‘nightmare’, ‘war’, ‘destroy’ (each English word was custom-designed to resemble a Chinese character, with the word in roman script alongside); a throne, masks and staff had designs that drew upon totems found in the Sanxing Pile archeological site dating back two thousand years (to imbue them with an aura of distant and oriental mysticism); masks that fused elements of Greek masks and xi qu (Chinese opera) painted faces; the costumes were based on the traditional han robe. In the event, all these were not to be.

The production department of Shakespeare’s Globe assembled an essential set, props and costumes. A yellow cushioned chair served as the throne, two tables as bed and platform, and there were several functional chairs. All the actors were costumed in basic black, except for Edward IV and Richard III in yellow robes, Queen Elizabeth in a purple robe, and Richard as Duke of Gloucesterin a green robe.

Instead of an East-West collage that infused Shakespeare’s play with Chinese visual elements, the skills of the Chinese actors, trained in either contemporary spoken drama or traditional xi qu, were brought into sharp focus as a vivid re-creation of Shakespeare’s characters. Two of the most memorable scenes were Richard’s courting of Lady Anne, where the contrast between the naturalistic acting of Richard and the xi qu acting of Anne expressed the changing dynamic between them; and the killing of Clarence by murderers played as xi qu clown roles. In the unlucky-lucky mishap of international shipping, their acting in its bare bones, stripped of visual spectacle, shone with the accidental brilliance.

Zhang Dong-Yu (in his 30s) was a Richard with no deformity but driven by a desire to prove his abilities and hold absolute power. When Richard courted Lady Anne, Zhang, who was trained for and has always performed on the proscenium stage, could be seen attempting to adapt to the actor-audience relationship on a thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by a visible audience sometimes barely a metre away. Just as Zhang’s Richard became more self-assured and unstoppable after successfully winning Lady Anne’s hand, Zhang the actor found his métier through this scene. The festivity of performance was dynamically alive throughout.

The National Theatre of China’s performance of Richard III extended the range of possibilities for performing Shakespeare. For the actors, this experience of performing at the Globe must have expanded their range as well. Zhang may have felt it the strongest when, at the curtain call, he prostrated deeply and kissed the stage.


LEE Chee Keng 
Assistant Professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Academic Group
National Institute of Education (Singapore), Nanyang Technological University.

He is the Chinese Translation Co-editor of the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (A|S|I|A), and has written, translated and directed plays in Chinese and English. His research interests include visual metaphor in performance, Shakespeare performance in Asia and cultural policy.