Stripped to Their Real Selves: Richard III by The National Theatre of  China

We were rushing out in order to catch our train back to Leeds when Zhang Yifang, who acted Queen Elizabeth in the play, stopped us and asked us to see the photographs exhibited in the hall. The images of the intended staging – with costumes, masks, and set – displayed how the production would have looked if the missing container transporting these materials had arrived safely. Zhang felt that the performance would have been much better with those absent accoutrements. We told her we had already studied the pictures carefully as suggested by Director Wang Xiaoying after we had earlier gone to congratulate him and the company for the successful performance at the Globe. Certainly, we well understood how regretful all the company members felt. Yet there was also a positive side to the unexpected storm that had delayed the shipping container of costumes, props and scenery: it helped the audience perceive the real selves of the performers, the strength of their acting profession, and the quality of the company. I couldn’t help thinking that the current production might have even been more powerful than the one had the performers worn facial patterns, masks and ornamental costumes.

The style attempted by Director Wang in the Chinese Richard III is both intercultural and intracultural.

The intercultural aspect is inherent since Shakespeare’s play is performed by a group of Chinese actors in Mandarin; it is also overtly symbolized in the production’s logo where the title Richard III is written in an unusual intercultural manner utilising English letters formed into a shape of a written Chinese character (see Fig. 1). From this image in the working process created by Stage Designer Liu Kedong,[1] one can see that ‘R’ (on the left hand side) is used as a Chinese 人 to become the top part of a triangular shape within which the remaining letters of the name ‘Richard’ are placed.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The intracultural elements are expressed by the different ways of acting. Three of the company’s actors are from jingju (or Beijing Opera as it is known in the West), with one of these performers, Zhang Xin, playing both Lady Anne and the Prince of Wales. Zhang faces a challenging task because she switches between two acting styles when she performs Lady Anne, especially in the scene when Lady Anne is wooed by Gloucester. Zhang commented at the interview:

It is very difficult. Jingju is stylized with conventions while spoken drama is natural. Body movements, gestures and even voice are all different between the two genres. For example, the jingju female role speaks with a high pitch and we call it ‘false voice’ while for spoken drama, I have to use my natural voice. And when I act the Prince, I’m in my natural voice but blend in some of the skills of ‘false voice’ in order to show his young age. During the rehearsals, I lost my voice for weeks. It took the director and me a long time to decide when and where I should use which style.[2]

From the set-piece of Gloucester’s seduction of the widowed Lady Anne the Chinese Richard no longer appears limping or hunchbacked. Although, in the intended staging, at the end of the play Richard’s body distorts and blood flows down (see Fig. 2), this visual effect did not occur in this performance due to the absence of the set.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Wang Xiaoying interpreted the character at an interview I helped arrange for the Royal Shakespeare Company inBeijing:

We really want to express our understanding of the desire and ambition for power.  We want to examine how the search for power has tortured human nature and how easily it has pushed an ordinary person to the edge. … I think Richard IIIdoes not have to be constrained by an ugly image, although a deformed figure has been the convention on the stage. Our creative work should not merely focus on his deformed body, and perhaps his disabled limbs can become an excuse. I think a man, who is good at plotting and scheming and enjoys the absolute power, does not need any external reason (including his physicality) to be evil. If we try to understand the cruelty and sinister in the complexity of human beings, we can perhaps regard Richard IIIas someone who is physically healthy but with psychological deformity. Thus, my Richard IIIis an image who, alternatively, looks robust but also shows his psychological deformity.[3]

Interestingly, the interpretation would seem to echo the Chinese veteran stage director Xu Xiaozhong’s words of Macbeth, [4]  ‘the fall of a would-be hero’,[5] which was presented on the Chinese stage in 1980. Indeed, Zhang Dongyu,[6] the actor playing Richard, claimed at the interview that Richard III to him was ‘a hero’. The insertion of three raven-like witches in the production, with additional lines, further serves to remind audiences of Macbeth. However, one might question whether such an approach rather arbitrarily conflates the characters of RichardIII and Macbeth whereas the original characters created by Shakespeare are quite different.

[1] Liu Kedong gave me an interview inBeijing on 21 March. Both images used in this article are kindly offered by him.

[2] Zhang Xin gave me an interview after the show on 29 April.

[3] Wang Xiaoying gave an interview in Beijing on 21 March. The words after the ellipsis were written to me by Wang when he proof read the interview notes.

[4] Those who are interested in this 1980 production can see Li, Ruru, Shashibiya, Staging Shakespeare on the Chinese Stage, Hong Kong University Press, 2003, pp69-82.

[5] Bao Guoan 1981. “Yici jiannan de chuangzuo [The Difficult Creative Process]”,  Xiju xuexi  [Drama Studies], Issue 2,Beijing: Zhongyang Xiju Xueyuan, 114-121.

[6] Zhang was also at the interview in Beijing.

Li Ruru
Senior Lecturer in Chinese, East Asian Studies, School of Modern Languages and Cultures 

University of Leeds