April 5, 2014
The National Theatre of China brought their production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to NYU’s Skirball center at the end of last month. It’s a gorgeous production, done in the style of traditional Chinese theatre. What’s most striking about the production, however, is how clear the story comes across.
One of my college professors taught us “Shakespeare is both director and actor-proof.” What he meant was that the writing is strong enough to withstand the concepts directors lay on or the choices actors make. Usually this means that the writing shines through despite these things. With the National Theatre of China’s production, a slightly different twist on this emerged. Had I not known it was a production of Richard III, but instead thought it was an ancient play from China, I still would have recognized the story, despite the stage trappings and even the language. Which was slightly surprising and disappointing.
Not that it wasn’t an excellent production of Richard III. It was solidly handled by the ensemble of thirteen actors under the clear direction of Wang Xiaoying. The most interesting moments, however, were the unexpected, which all stemmed not from the text as much as the tradition of performance in China. Every murderer (and there are several in the play) was played by a pair of comic actors, including Tyrell as a two-headed character – a convention from Peking Opera. Margaret curses Richard and reappears as each character condemned by him dies, intoning her curse as blood runs down the banners on the stage – another convention from classical Chinese theatre.
Moments like these were exciting and made the play feel fresh and new. Outside of those moments, while beautiful to watch and clearly played, it was basically another production of Richard III. There was some inadvertent excitement caused by the technician controlling the projected translations. The company wisely opted for quick summaries of a scene’s action rather than a line for line translation. Unfortunately, during the performance, these became muddled and created confusion rather than clarity. At two separate points, the screen skipped back and forth between summaries, eliciting laughter from the audience. Ironically, if the techie running the board had been focusing on the play in front of him or her, they would most likely have been able to match the projections effortlessly.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Kelly Jonhston