Thursday 3 May 2012

Richard III from China at the Globe: theatre review

An edited version of this review appeared in the Morning Star.

Richard III — National Theatre of China
Globe to Globe International Shakespeare Festival
Review 29th April 2012

Their stunning costumes may have been languishing in a container ship just off Felixtowe, but even if the cast had been wearing sackcloth, rather than a wardrobe hastily assembled from the bowels of the Globe Theatre, it wouldn't have diminished the fire of Wang Xiaoying's exhilarating production of Richard III.

The National Theatre of China makes Beijing-Opera-meets-Shakespeare every bit as exciting as you could imagine this history refracted through Chinese sensibilities and performed in Mandarin.

Lady Anne, the tragic heroine widowed by the man she is about to marry, is perhaps the clearest exemplar of the demanding Beijing Opera discipline, her fluting delivery and fluid movements mesmerisingly communicating her miserable circumstances.

Richard's two henchmen perform their murderous duties in full martial-arts mode, with expert clowning and tumbling skills. Some wonderfully crude Yo Mama expletives hint at Shakespeare rewritten for Chinese audiences, all aided by an atmospheric soundscape from a one-man traditional percussion band.

Stylised to the eyeballs it may be, yet there's enough naturalism — conveying nuance of emotion and clear delineation of characters — to satisfy modern audiences.

Resisting the temptation to crowbar current Bo Xilai parallels into this review, let us merely report that the opening scene — where dissembling Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the charismatic Zhang Dongyu), lays out his villainous ambitions to rise to the top on a wave of havoc — has a familiar ring, building inexorably to the climax.

Power games abound in this mire of corruption. From the outset, Tricky Dicky congratulates himself on the virtuosity of his various manipulations. With the major conflict of the War of the Roses over, the new dynasty established and Richard's brother Edward on the throne, our anti-hero plots to wipe out his rivals beginning with his brother Clarence. Preying on innocents, he leaves a trail of dead before finally dispatching the young nephews blocking his path to the throne.

Surtitles, giving descriptions of scenes rather than complete translations, announce: "To win over the people, Buckingham praises Richard's virtues." And "Richard pretends to be modest, making a show of refusing to accept power."

So no analogies here, then.

Buckingham's fawning foray into the auditorium in the coronation scene to rouse the masses with cries of "wànsuì" (meaning "long live") sparked mirthful recognition among the Chinese half of the audience. Strangely, they seemed to derive a jolly catharsis from seeing their crafty leader wracked with guilt, suffering and ultimately dying.

And the rest of us still got it, too: proving both the universality of Shakespeare, and that we have more in common than we have differences.

Morning Star review 3rd May 2012

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