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A Villain by Any Other Name

by Glenda Frank


"Richard III" by William Shakespeare.
Presented by the National Theatre of China
NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square, NYC.
March 26–29 at 8pm; March 30 at 3pm. Tues.-Sat. 12–6:00 P.M.
$39-$65 at www.nyuskirball.org, by phone at 212.352.3101 or 866.811.4111, or in person at the NYU Skirball Center Box Office.

National Theatre of China's production of Richard III. Photo by Liu Weilen.

New York is a theatrical hub. It offers more than the spectacles of Broadway, the experiments of off off-Broadway and the musical feasts at AMAS. The best talent from around the world journeys here to display their wonders. I remember a postmodern interpretation of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" (in German) by the German director Thomas Ostermeierat BAM; Ninagawa's elegant "Medea" at the Delacorte Theatre in the rain (and we all stayed) and again his monumental "Macbeth" (both in Japanese) at BAM; the Greek National Theatre's breath-taking "Medea" and a poignant "The Persians," which I thought was unstageable (in Greek). I learned to watch and listen while reading supertitles, and to revel in the genius of foreign perspectives. "Richard III" by the National Theatre of China at NYU's Skirball Center belongs on this list.

The production directed by Wang Xiaoying is an amalgam of Chinese opera and a western classic. The supertitles are simply scene summaries, a Brechtian guide. Liberties are taken with the script: the heart-breaking scene of the three noble women waiting at the foot of the Tower to see Edward's young sons is gone; Lady Anne does not follow the coffin of her father-in-law; and most of all, the opening scene has been borrowed from "Macbeth." This unsettling inclusion turns out to be very clever. The three witches establish the theme of evil ruling the universe. The evil is lodged in a witchy looking Queen Margaret, who brandishes her walking stick like a weapon, and during the play peers down at the players from a second-story as she comments and curses. For the first time, her role in the play becomes pivot, not a lull in the action. (Perhaps this is what Shakespeare intended.) Before the Battle of Bosworth Field, both the "withered hags" and masked wraiths return to doom the king.

National Theatre of China's production of Richard III. Photo by Liu Weilen.

Even more exciting is the interpretation of Richard (the charismatic Zhang Dongyu). In interactions with his family and friends, many of whom he destroys, he is a normal man, although dressed in burgundy to differentiate him from the dun-clad cast. But in soliloquy, exits and entrances, he is a hunchback. And in the high-concept lighting by Liu Jianzhong, his shadow is an insect-shaped colossus. After he orders the murder of the children, he dons a red glove, which is never removed. These startling effects, integrated into the scenes, are offered without fanfare.

The set design by Liu Kedong features an elevated golden throne and two carved side columns. In mirroring scenes, both Richard and Richmond, the conqueror, don golden cloaks and ascend the throne in blazes of glory. I have seen no finer depiction of power. They embody light -- sun kings. And all the standing courtiers, facing the new king, with their backs to us, drop to their knees.

When Richard courts Lady Anne, she is so swayed that she clings to a column in fear of being blown away. The scene is stagy, with lots of falling on the floor, throat baring and sword pointing, but when Lady Anne departs, wearing Richard's ring, he collapses to the floor from exhaustion, and then rises for his soliloquy: "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd? Was ever woman in this humour won? I'll have her, but I will not keep her long." As he speaks he casts a giant hunchback shadow on the back wall.

The first assassins are comic relief, a wonder -- gymnasts with faces painted red and white, wearing identical harlequin-like garb. They are short and slim, like children, and frightened at the order to kill Richard's brother Clarence. Clarence gives it his all: arguing his cause but also using a bench as a shield and hiding under a table in the choreographed encounter. But when the royal children are slain, the lone assassin, in somber garb and full stature, signals a dramatic turn.

The details are telling. Richard, holding prayer beads, is flanked by Buddhist monks when he refuses the crown thrice. Lady Anne almost chants her lines in a high, Chinese opera voice, sometimes addressing the audience rather than Richard. Throughout entrances, exits, and gestures are in themselves a deliberate art. There is a bare economy in the stylized movement. The blocking is sometimes like a game of chess pieces. Clarence enters, is greeted by Richard, then marched to the tower. Then Hasting, newly released from the Tower, crosses back and greets Richard. After Richard decides to murder Hastings, he knocks over a chair and exits. Buckingham, Richard's micromanager, looks at the chair, rights it, and the play moves forward. The percussionist, stage left, keeps the pulse, guiding us through the complex emotions. He plays both a sound track and directorial signals.

Do you have to know the play to appreciate this brilliant production? It helps. I am not sure what other theatre goers see. But I do know that gifts like this expand the perimeters of theatre possibilities, bring new life to familiar classics, and create memorable performances.

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