Monday 20 July 2015

Theatre review: Richard III (National Theatre of China / Globe to Globe)

This year's Globe to Globe visits both come from China; there's a Hong Kong Macbeth coming later this summer, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it had turned up early as a couple of scenes into the National Theatre of China's Richard III, performed in Mandarin with scene summaries in English, the titular character encounters three witches. They greet him as a future king, and this sets Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Zhang Hao) first to consider if he could indeed bypass all the relatives between him and the crown; and then to ensure it by bumping them all off. The various nationalities that have come to the Globe have tended to bring their own performance styles, and it's always interesting to see Shakespeare taken on by East Asian nations whose theatrical styles and traditions developed for centuries entirely separately from Western performance.

In the event, Wang Xiaoying's production turns out to employ a mix of stylised and more naturalistic acting, for instance Zhang Xin's Lady Anne speaks in a high-pitched sing-song most of the time, only occasionally speaking naturally at moments when she lets her guard down.

More significantly, Wang elaborates on Shakespeare's equating of physical deformity with an ugly character: Zhang's Richard is a handsome, confident one with no apparent physical disabilities. Only when he's on his own, soliloquising and plotting, does he curl himself up into the traditional image of the limping, bunch-backed toad. His motives in this version actually begin as something other than just power-hunger: Having fought as bravely as any of his family in the Wars of the Roses, he feels he hasn't been given his due.

The Globe's social media have been particularly excited about the production's costumes arriving: When the company brought the show here as part of the original Globe to Globe season in 2012, they got lost in transit. Certainly it's good that Chen Xianwei's costumes have made it this time around, as this is a production strong on the visuals and symbolism. Not just in the costumes - the many deaths are symbolised by black cloths being laid over the unfortunate characters, while blood slowly stains the paper tapestries that form the backdrop.

Other than the crossover with Macbeth, Wang Mengmeng's translation doesn't veer too far from Shakespeare's story. The play's black comedy is largely given over to clowns, the bungling murderers of Clarence here recurring throughout the story as a pair of comedy tumblers (Cain Jingchao and Zhang Zhiyong.) This does take some of the focus away from the lead, which is a shame as Zhang plays the comic villainy well: Like all the Globe to Globe shows Richard III has been edited down, although with this being Shakespeare's second-longest play the company don't quite manage to get it down to the 2 hours 15 minutes guideline. In fact the first half runs for a solid 100 minutes, and after a strong start the production does flag, Wang opting to keep a lot of dull plotting that goes on with Richard offstage.

Things pick up again before the interval with Richard's faux-pious show of modesty, and the second half is much more heavily edited, picking up the pace again as he gains the crown and quickly loses it again. Most Globe to Globe productions have featured a moment where the actors have left their native language to drop into a line of English. Usually it's a crowd-pleasing throwaway gag, but having changed the famous opening, Zhang drops the Mandarin to perform the other best-known line, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse" in the original. So a significant dip halfway through the show, but a colourful and energetic take on cartoon villainy for the rest of it.

Richard III by William Shakespeare in a version by Wang Mengmeng is booking in repertory until the 25th of July at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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