Richard III. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (see Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Adapted by Luo Dajun. Directed by Wang Xiaoying. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. In Chinese.
Richard III: In brief
The National Theatre of China makes its American debut with a dramatic reinvention of Shakespeare’s Tudor-friendly history play, in which a malicious hunchback clambers to power on the corpses of his family and friends.
Richard III: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Shakespeare's juiciest history, Richard III, runs red with betrayals. According to the Bard, the (supposedly) wicked Yorkist usurper Richard undercuts two of his brothers, has his nephews murdered and does nasty, beheading-type things to anyone who questions his path to the throne. So perhaps it's appropriate that the visiting production from the National Theatre of China has itself been betrayed—hamstrung by touring producers who have adulterated its strengths and alienated a willing audience.
A few of the choices were, perhaps, forced upon them. NYU's Skirball Center is a big, echoing, inhospitable barn that dwarfs scenic pieces and leaves a chasm of space between audience and actor. Liu Kedong's set, a pair of dark, richly carved columns and a rear panel of six calligraphy-covered banners, looks paltry in the wretched, bare light, and particularly for this intimate Shakespeare, which depends on the lead character's direct seduction of the groundlings, Skirball is a bad match.
The worst decision, though, is the production's perverse refusal to use supertitles. Those familiar with the plot won't be too confused (when in doubt, Richard is planning to kill someone), and there are brief scene “captions” that appear above the action. These few cards, though, are confusing and poorly deployed. As Richard (Zhang Dongyu) writhed under a table during a stylized battle, the title card above him read “Richmond accepts the crown.” Not yet he hadn't! Give a despot a fighting chance!
The night I saw it, theatergoers not conversant in Mandarin fled en masse during intermission. The production isn't sufficiently musical—despite a dazzling percussion accompanist—to allow us to watch it as an opera, in which case incomprehension could rise and fall as language-as-sound rushes over us. Richard III is still a character-driven, text-driven play, and without supertitles (which are themselves, of course, only a partial solution), the show throws up a wall against its audience. Zhang Dongyu's lead performance, trying to vault this impediment, turns first to melodrama, then to a space beyond melodrama—basically, the absurd. His final moments, in which he clutches at the throne with his blood-red gloves, are risible.
What's frustrating, though, is not that the show is bad, but that it might be rather good, just badly served. The staging is a sometimes affecting hodgepodge of styles: Director Wang Xiaoying layers in various thriller elements—blood trickling down the rear wall, interpolated ghosts—and uses conventions from Chinese opera to heighten the tension. Doomed Lady Anne sings her entrance, for instance, her keening wail moving from bereavement to terror in one quavering note.
That strange seduction scene, in which Anne must succumb to the man who has killed her husband, poses terrible challenges to actors. Wang has Zhang Xin play the scene in a formalized series of poses: She hides her face behind her sleeve; she throws a handful of paper petals in the air. It's a clever solution to this bizarre moment, and so we see Richard, elsewhere so ridiculous, suddenly step into a nearly occult power. For a moment, Zhang Xin makes Lady Anne’s submission comprehensible, whether we understand what she's saying or not.—Theater review by Helen Shaw