The expectant audience for the Bitola Festival’s Richard III had been brought up to speed by Henry VI Parts One and Three earlier in the week (the scheduled production of Part Two from Tirana was unable to come at the last moment). But even if they hadn’t seen these shows, spectators needn’t have worried. The National Theatre of China’s dazzling production made clear the narrative of Richard’s bloody rise and fall within the pivotal end of the War of the Roses and beginning of the new Tudor dynasty through superb visual story-telling.
Director Wang Xiaoying drew in Western spectators to his transcultural production with visual recollections of familiar Richard III scenarios. A brief martial dumbshow of the Yorkists defeating the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury (the closing battle of 3 Henry VI) opened the performance, followed by the extra-textual spectacle of Edward IV being enthroned. This is the backstory and mise en scène of traditional Richard IIIs such as Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film. Here it was clothed in gorgeous Chinese costumes before a white-curtain backdrop, on which were written theme-words in English (e.g. Lie, Kill, Power, Having, Benefit, Curse) and Chinese-looking characters. These, as Lee Chee Keng and Alexander Huang have each explained, are square-word calligraphy by visual artist Xu Bing that fragments rather than translates the English words.
A further closing allusion to Olivier framed Wang’s artful blending of performance traditions. After Richmond’s army ritually encircled and stabbed Richard with their pikes, the latter rolled from the raised throne onto the orchestra of the open-air amphitheatre. For a second or two, the only sound was the naturalistic gritting of a body and clothes on the stone floor. Richard’s final body-shape in his protean repertoire was lying on his back, head slightly up, looking at a raised red-gloved hand, which slowly crimped in pain and collapsed. Only Olivier’s cross-hilted sword was missing from this silhouette.
The 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre in the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis (“Hercules [in the] the land of the lynx”) was a fortuitous choice for Wang’s stage interpretation. It went against English tradition by enhancing Margaret’s Shakespearian role as a Senecan tragic nemesis (a statue of the goddess was dug up at the amphitheatre and is displayed in Heraclea’s museum). Margaret (She Nannan) first appeared as one of three masked witches to prophesy, Macbeth-like, after Richard’s opening soliloquy. Later she emerged semi-blind with a stick to curse the Yorkist court, accompanied by occasional deep-bass rumbles suggestive of the earth gaping. Richard and an even more aloof Buckingham (Wu Xiaodong) listened impassively to their destinies, others nervously. Each time one met his or her fate, Margaret would walk up to the bottom tier of the elevated theatre seats and stand menacingly spotlit (and, from where I was sitting that night, with a full moon rising over her head). She gloated what seemed like a Chinese version of “I told you so!” and then slunk down to await the next domino. Satiated after Richard had fallen, her wailing voice could be heard in the distance over the remains of Heraclea.
Zhang Dong-Yu’s Richard was a slyly amusing villain and consummate physical actor. He hunchbacked himself only when he disclosed his thoughts to us, or when creeping from behind the back-curtain and pausing to listen (like Margaret). Joining the action, he straightened up to dissimulate in a naturalistic acting mode. The flexible power of his body suggested a modern kind of charisma when interlocutors such as Lady Anne (Zhang Xin) responded in classical Chinese-opera (Xi qu) gestures and sliding-tone voices.
Richard inevitably dominates the play, but in this beautifully disciplined and dynamic production he was also just one member of a virtuoso company presenting superbly individualized characters. Two delights were the comic-acrobat executioners (Xu Meng Ke and Cai Jin Chao), who presented themselves to Richard for Clarence’s murder with a breathtaking line of cartwheels. Wang cleverly used their vaulting humour to represent the whole class of aspiring henchmen who dispose of Richard’s enemies. Their more somber signature was mechanically drawing a large black veil over the next dead man walking.
I’d love to describe all the performances of this bravura production (performed by most actors doubling or tripling roles). But in this space I’ll mention just two more. Zhang Xin, who played Lady Anne, also played Prince Edward in what sounded to me like a deliberately grating Chinese-opera voice. Dressed differently from the rest of the company’s long-sleeved gowns, in cavalry boots and carrying a horsewhip, Zhang’s character (according to Lee Chee Keng) was that of a wu sheng (young warrior). But it was harder to know what to make of the two thin two-metre long pheasant plumes that sprang from his head. To me they looked like antennae and made the boy-prince look like a fantastic cricket. Possibly they were similar to the ostrich feathers worn in European military helmets. But they weren’t just decorative. Prince Edward used them to gesticulate his cheeky loquacity. Constantly quivering, the “antennae” suggested the buzzing energy that Richard was soon to stamp out. Theatrically they produced an image of thought-provoking estrangement that was characteristic of this production’s intelligent interlacing of Western and Chinese cultural signs.
Li JianPeng’s Richmond re-directed history like a force of nature. Freed from the iconic piety and chivalric ironies of Shakespeare’s text, he seemed to strike even more fear into Richard than the chorus of colourfully masked ghosts who haunted him before Bosworth. His fully embodied performance, like that Zhang and their NTC colleagues, highlighted the universality and uniqueness of individual physical expression that underpins culturally specific stagings of Shakespeare around the world.
 I am indebted to Lee and Huang for such details. Lee Chee Keng , “Performing Cultural Exchange in Richard III,” Shakespeare Beyond English: A Global Experiment, ed. Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming August 2013), 75-82; Alexa Huang, ‘“What Country, Friends, Is This?’: Touring Shakespeares, Agency, and Efficacy in Theatre Historiography,” Theatre Survey 54.1 (January 2013), 51-85.
Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His books include Henry VI Part Three (ed. 2001), Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (2008), Shakespeare / Adaptation / Modern Drama (co-ed. with Katherine Scheil, 2011) and Shakespeare and Ecology (2015).