Love-hate Shakespeare: Felicity Kendal’s Shakespeare Quest, BBC 2

(c) BBC

Just in case we’re in danger of getting a little too Bardolatrous during this World Shakespeare Festival it’s good to remember that Shakespeare hasn’t always been the voice of freedom and self-definition.  In fact, at times he has been the blunt tool of colonialism and silencing.  Felicity Kendal, 70s star of The Good Life, spent most of her childhood and teenage years as part of her parents’ multicultural troupe of actors performing Shakespeare throughout India, in school halls or Maharaja’s palaces, and calling themselves Shakespeareana. Her father believed he was a secular ‘missionary’.  This was fictionalised in the wonderful film Shakespeare Wallah in which many of the characters played themselves.  In the film, the young Felicity left for England after having her heart broken by a handsome young Indian.  In real life, the ending was much happier.  She found fame from her film role and her elder sister married the film star and producer Sashi Kapoor.  That reality was probably too radical for mass distribution in the early 1960s.  In her recent BBC Two documentary, Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest (broadcast on BBC Two, 9:00PM Wed, 16 May 2012) she returns to her first home to celebrate Shakespeare in India (and does just that) but also to ask some difficult questions and hear some hard answers.  Here’s a couple of snippets:

Kendal: ‘My father believed that Shakespeare and India were a natural fit, but for some Indian artists the relationship is a bit more complicated.’

She meets Arjun Raina, a Kathakali Master who appropriates Shakespeare for his own purposes.  As she explains, ‘Traditionally, Kathakali tells stories from Indian mythology; Arjun’s work plunders Shakespeare instead.’ In a brief analysis of his reworking of Othello, she concludes ‘Shakespeare’s tragedy is about a black hero living in a white man’s world. Arjun sees parallels between Othello’s story and the identity crisis faced by many Indians as they square up to the colonial past.’

Raina as Othello (c) The Tribune, India

The two actors perform ‘To be or not to be’ in Kathakali gestures, laughing easily with each other, then Raina suddenly demands of her: ‘What did British colonisation do? It absolutely cut a whole people from the roots of their culture.  And it did it in very, very cunning, very brilliant ways. And one of the offerings of that was the great work of Shakespeare. So if you think people love Shakespeare and I love Shakespeare, that’s only partially the truth. The truth is you hate it also.’

Kendal goes on to introduce an extract from his Othello: ‘To dramatize that love-hate relationship Arjun tears up the script. In the original play Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, because he thinks she’s had an affair.  This time round, husband and wife survive. It’s the treacherous Iago who ends up dead.’

‘It’s like hijacking an aeroplane!’ Raina says, only semi-mischievously. ‘It always get you attention. So the reason why I have done Shakespeare is… I’m not so interested in Shakespeare and your world, but I was very passionately interested about making my world and my beauty and my art be present in my world.’

To put this conversation into context, we need to go back to a conversation she has earlier in the documentary with Dr Poonam Trivadi, who edited India’s Shakespeare, about the history of Shakespeare in Indian classrooms.

‘There was in fact a very heated debate about the kind of education the  East India Company would promote between what were called the Orientalists and the Anglicists,’ says Trivadi. ‘The Orientalists said education should be conducted in the mother tongues, and importance should be given to the Indian classical languages and literature. The Anglicists said all education should be in English so that it promotes an understanding of Western literature and Western cultures.  Macaulay, who was the chief architect of this view, believed as he said in his very infamous remark, that a single shelf of European literature is worth all the literatures of the Indian languages put together.’

There really is only one response to that, and Felicity Kendal makes it: ‘My Goodness! It’s the arrogance, isn’t it? It’s the arrogance!’

Macaulay’s ideas became law in 1835.

Shakespeare is loved in India, but as Kendal’s family found out in the first decades after Independence, it’s not surprising he’s hated too.

This clip shows a convicted murderer play King Lear as part of a prison project.  Both he and Shakespeare are redeemed.

World Shakespeare Festival: Three Arabic Shakespeares, Putting Words into our Mouths

Imogen in South Sudan’s ‘Cymbeline’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Cymbeline directed by Joseph Abuk and Derik Uya Alfred and performed by South Sudan Theatre Company, Globe to Globe, London, Wednesday 2nd May matinee.

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad directed by Monadhil Daood and performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company, RSC Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, Friday 4th May evening.

Richard II directed by  Conall Morrison and performed by Ashtar Theatre, Globe to Globe, London, Saturday 5th May evening.

These three Shakespeare appropriations deserve individual blog posts, of course, and I will be posting these in due course.  However, because all three productions were taking part in the World Shakespeare Festival in one week, their combined effect has prompted me to think about what the word Arabic conjures up for me, how diversely Shakespeare can be appropriated, translated and presented, and how the World Shakespeare Festival is trading in/constructing images of the Arab speaking world for its audiences. The latter is not necessarily as ethically dubious as it sounds, and I will attempt to unpack why a little later, but it is important to note that at least two of these productions were commissioned by the festival organisers.

The first production I saw was the South Sudan Theatre Company’s  Cymbeline.  This has been much-hyped as a performance from the world’s newest country – and why not hype?  After all, that is how theatres get audiences. I doubt very much whether the company were asked to choose a play from a group containing this one by chance.  One of Shakespeare’s strangest Late Plays (my personal favourite), it is set in this country’s ancient past and is part of its foundation history. Ironically in the North/South Sudan context, which separated into two countries last year, Shakespeare uses Cymbeline to reflect not on England alone but on James I’s proposed united nation of Britain (Shapiro, BBC4, 7/5/2012).  The London-Juba South Sudan Theatre Company was actually founded to put on this production, making it perhaps the most significant appropriation in terms of national identity in this festival – and indicating, aside from any claims about the ‘universality’ of the Bard, the power and currency of the Shakespeare brand in a rapidly globalising world. He is fast becoming the Coca-Cola of the arts, some might argue.  However, it is productions like these that ensure that does not happen. “Literature is combat,” declares Jospeh Abuk, the play’s translator. “Literature is a warfront against those aspects of society that don’t help humanity.”

The doctor, South Sudan ‘Cymbeline’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Cymbeline was translated into Juba Arabic by Abuk, and the play’s relocation to a Sudanese setting was a sharp reminder that Arabic is also an African language and has an existence outside of Middle Eastern and Muslim culture.  The  Guardian review explains that Juba Arabic is a colloquial form of Arabic spoken as a lingua franca between different tribes, and the Juba Cymbeline certainly sounded contemporary and informal to my untrained ear, the language matched by the dynamic, street theatre style of acting. And like street theatre, mystery plays, and typical Globe productions, it played to and played with the audience.  The production’s visual surface was a non-specific ‘tribal’ setting (perhaps an ancient kingdom, or perhaps a contemporary Sudanese village).  Its dynamic action kept the non-Sudanese on board, but there were many jokes that only the Juba-Arabic speakers could get (see Margaret Litvin’s blog post on her attempt to follow the dialogue, which turned out to be very far removed from the Egyptian Arabic she can speak).  A young Sudanese sitting next to me, there for the patriotism of the moment rather than the play, was texting on his mobile phone, but kept looking up and laughing when he heard the funny bits, his attention momentarily captured. Many others were captivated throughout. To ensure that the non-Juba speakers were not left out, the cast slipped into English at key moments, anchoring the plot for its London audience, and also maybe indicating how one language is often a tapestry of many.  Juba Arabic, I imagine, must also contain many words and phrases from indigenous languages.

This production set out to make this an African story in form as well as setting.  Interspersed and framed with songs and dances, the ‘play’ itself opened with the cast taking turns to summarise the story for the audience, suggesting an oral story-telling tradition.  The play’s ancestors returning from the dead to call on the gods to intervene in the lives of their descendents also played to Western preconceptions (or misconceptions) about African religion and beliefs, because of course, the ancestors came from Shakespeare’s text and the gods were Classical (Roman). However, the play’s translator felt this also found equivalence in Sudanese tradition. If you read the  company’s blog, you can follow the process of how this troupe of global, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and mostly young people took sophisticated ownership of what some may see as a post-colonial project.

Ashtar Theatre, Palestine, ‘Richard II’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

The Palestinian Ashtar Theatre took an entirely different approach.  They were commissioned to do a play they hadn’t heard of: ‘Shouldn’t it have another 1 on the end?’ one of the creative team quipped at the between-performances discussion on 5th May.  Ashtar had asked if they could do The Taming of the Shrew, ‘because we’re really interested in gender’.  However, the Festival director, Tom Bird, had other ideas; he wanted them to do Richard II because, in his eyes, its tale of a weak and vain king overthrown by popular uprisings spoke to the Arab Spring.  In fact, in the Globe to Globe Festival programme, he rather naughtily implies that it was the company that made this connection itself: ‘The festival has found itself at the mercy of international politics (Cymbeline from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, The Comedy of Errors from Afghanistan, Richard II from Palestine).’  Whilst fully embracing the spirit of the festival, Ashtar nonetheless maintained its own integrity, refusing to construct an overt allegory and creating a largely non-specific, pan-Arab mise-en-scene.  In fact, if this had been in English, not Arabic, the fair-haired Richard could have been king of anywhere.  Only the gardeners wore an identifying local dress. The translation, down to every name and place, located the action to England.  ‘It’s not Palestine,’ the creative team insisted, ‘and it’s certainly not Syria, as some people are suggesting.  No, it’s not Syria.’ When they said this, I think they really meant that it was not Syria and that the spectators should not be looking for such allegories: ‘We wouldn’t presume to speak for Syrians.’  However, by constantly reiterating that it wasn’t Syria, the result was that I could only see Syria in the production, of course…  The young king too confident that God was on his side, oblivious to the fact that his people no longer loved him, and had never loved him just because of who he was, seemed terribly like President al-Assad, and his low-key but ever so chic Queen, not approving of his foolish and destructive behaviour, but always putting her love for him first, looked a little like Asma. And although place and allegory was not fixed, when the protesters ran onstage, faces covered and waving blood-stained flags, it conjured up Damascus or Cairo’s Tahrir Square rather than London’s looting.  Judging from the cheers from the highly politicised audience, people saw what they wanted to see. Or perhaps the cheering was because, as my friend Sheksper pointed out later, ‘the flags were in the component colours of the Palestinian flag,…’

Ashtar Theatre, Palestine, ‘Richard II’ (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Ashtar resisted having words put into their mouths by the festival organisers, quite literally. Following the linguistic vision of the Globe to Globe project, ’37 Plays in 37 Languages’, they had been asked to translate the play into Palestinian Arabic.  ‘We tried,’ said Shbib, who also played the Queen, ‘but it didn’t work.  You can’t have Richard II sounding like he’s on the bus!’ Because it’s a play in which imagery and rhetoric is so central, they decided to work from an existing translation in classical Arabic, by an Egyptian.  It was then modernised by a Palestinian poet, and reworked to give it dramatic and psychological force by the actors themselves and their Irish co-director.  This added a certain frisson to Richard’s campaign to Ireland, I can assure you. But the Festival still promoted it as Palestinian Arabic on the flyer.

Whatever type of Arabic they were speaking, when Richard, played by the mesmeric Sami Metwasi sat on the edge of the stage and lamented the death of kings, I felt the tears spill down my face.  The woman on the other side of him was clearly struggling to hold back hers, and Richard’s eyes filled to the brim.

Sandwiched between these two productions at the Globe, I took my sixteen-year-old daughter to see Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.  This production by the Iraqi Theatre Company had been commissioned by the RSC for the World Shakespeare Festival.  This took a different approach again.  Unlike the Globe’s approach, the production was closely surtitled.  Translated and transformed from Shakespeare’s English into Arabic, it was then translated back into contemporary English and projected on two screens on each side of the stage.  This allowed those of us who were non-Arabic speakers to see exactly how the text had been reconfigured, and be absorbed into the new language and imagery.  Before attending the Globe’s productions I would have backed this RSC approach 100%, but now I found a dilemma.  Whereas at the Globe I was completely drawn in by the performances, noticing the minutiae of expression, the choreography of the blocking, hearing the music of languages I cannot understand, here my mind was constantly divided between the performance and the screens.  I didn’t dare ignore the written word (what if I missed something important?), but for the first time I understood the tyranny of surtitles…

Iraqi Theatre Company ‘Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad’ (c) Royal Shakespeare Company

This was nonetheless a simple, stunning, shocking production. Appropriated into a contemporary Baghdad setting, the production used Shakespeare’s play as a frame in which to hang its own story, a tragedy of modern Iraq.  Again there appeared to be a mismatch between what the RSC envisioned and what the Iraqi Company chose to do.  The World Shakespeare Festival publicity and the local news touted it as a love story set in the Sunni/Shia divide, but there was no reference to this in the programme or the surtitles, suggesting that director Monadhil Daood’s reconfiguring was more nuanced. Montague and Capulet were blood brothers, sharing the same father but mothered by different wives. Fuelled by jealousy over family hierarchies and parental favouritism, the family’s dislocation was exacerbated by the war and exploited by the local muhajadeen, Paris.   Key characters, scenes, and images remained: Juliet’s nurse flirting with the Montague boys, Romeo and Juliet clinging to each other on a balcony, but many of the details were fundamentally different.  The lovers embraced life and looked to find a way to live a future.  The only suicide was that of the bomber that killed them.  Again, in the process of translation, the creative team searched to find equivalences.  How could Mercutio’s tale of Queen Mab speak to an Arab audience? Whereas Bas Lurhmann made sense of this difficult and now alien speech through the image of a small hallucinogenic pill on the tip of cross-dressing, party-going Mercutio’s finger, Daood turned to an old folktale about a beetle, a rat and a radish seller, and the pointless destruction of war.

Deborah Shaw’s poetic introduction in the programme notes likewise deals in most Westerner’s limited perceptions of the Arab world by dwelling on the only two reference points many of us have, war and the ‘stories, stories’ of the Arabian Nights. Margaret Litvin has pointed out that the World Shakespeare Festival seems only interested in the political hotspots of the Arab speaking world.  It is possible to argue that this is deeply problematic, even orientalising, particularly in the context and presentation of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad.  This production presented audiences literate in global current affairs with predictable images and allegories.  However, I would argue that this was the very thing that made this production so powerful. Watching the reactions of my daughter confirmed this for me.  She jumped in terror at the bomb blasts and gunshots and clung to my arm for much of the second half of the play.  Yet the fact that it was Romeo and Juliet gave her a way into this world.  It is a play that, like every other teenager in Britain, she has studied at school, and she has played the role of Juliet  drama class.  This appropriation of a familiar story defamiliarised made the news stories that she gets on her iPod news app suddenly seem relevant, real and close.  The retired couple sitting next to us stopped to talk on the way out of the theatre. ‘That wasn’t just a play,’ the husband said. ‘That was real.  I couldn’t stop thinking, this is really happening out there in the real world.’


Globe to Globe Richard III: the Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes

Richard III, directed by Wang Xiaoying and performed by the National Theatre of China during the Globe to Globe Festival, Saturday matinee, 28th April 2012, London. The majority of the Globe to Globe productions from 2012 are now available on Globeplayer for a small cost to rent or buy, including this one.

The train before mine was cancelled when I made the trip down from York to London last weekend – it has been raining for days and there is flooding across many places in the UK.  This is an important detail for this review, believe it or not, so keep it in mind…  I came down to see the National Theatre of China’s Richard III, which was taking part in the Globe to Globe Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  I had high expectations.  The NTC draws on three of Beijing’s most prestigious theatres for its practitioners and is housed in the spectacular National Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Paul Andreu.  I remember wandering through the old Beijing courtyard streets, or hutongs, last winter, past red paper lanterns and hole in the wall restaurants and bicycles propped against grey brick walls, the last vestiges of the Beijing I first visited in the early 1990s.

Bird’s Egg (c) Wikipedia Commons

Then, as I turned a corner, I was confronted with the spectacular, postmodern glass dome, or ‘Bird’s Egg’, as the theatre is popularly known, rising out of a man-made lake.  Inside the building, as I walked down into the exhibition area, I glanced up and realised that this lake formed part of the roof.  Even in the weak winter sunlight, the rippling water above me sparkled and shimmered and made me think of things rich and strange.  These things I found in abundance – quite literally – in the exhibition, which displayed costumes and set designs from previous productions, including Zhang Yimou’s magnificent, if controversial, Turandot, revived at the Bird’s Egg in 2009. There were samples of the lavish velvet and silk gowns, embroidered with thread of gold, for the large intercultural cast.  You’ve seen the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony; you know what I mean.  In fact, the NTC and its building is part of the lasting legacy of China’s cultural Olympiad.  So I was surprised when I saw the first publicity images for their touring production of Richard III: a general in a uniform that resembled that of the KMT (guomingdang), Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist Party in the 1930s and 40s.  Such contemporary and politicised huaju, or spoken theatre, is not so often exported to the West, other than to avant-garde theatre festivals. In my personal opinion, this is a shame.  It may not seem so invitingly, if problematically, Chinois – or culturally ‘exotic’ to Western eyes – but it is as Chinese, fundamentally tied to modernisation strategies and constructions of national identity in the 20C.  However, in the last couple of weeks, the Chinese production image on the Globe to Globe website has been updated.  Richard III, now with a jewelled crown, wears a lavish velvet and silk gown, embroidered with thread of gold, evocative of some non-specific, Oscar-nominated martial arts film notion of mediaeval China, or Turandot.  He is surrounded by three women in masks, looking like they have stepped out of A Chinese Ghost Story.

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

I’m not too disappointed, however.  It’s not such an adventurous choice, but I love theatrical spectacle, and bearing in mind that this production is for an international festival, that has opted to have ‘scene settings’ rather than word for word surtitles, it is likely to be far more accessible to a non-Chinese speaking audience, than perhaps Lin Zhaohua’s experimental appropriation of the same play, reflecting on the Cultural Revolution. This is because, to most people under the age of 40, the Cultural Revolution no longer has any resonance (some would argue ‘even in China’), but also because, thanks to blockbuster films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, rather than the intercultural theatre of Ariadne Mnouchkine, these images have already been absorbed into Western performing arts and the moving image. As critic Alex Huang points out, there is an orientalising danger in these productions on the part of the Western spectator; however, it is also part of China’s canny marketing of its heritage on the global stage. Think Merchant Ivory.

Yet it also depoliticises the production.  The Globe had doubtless asked the NTC to devise a production of Richard III because they saw it as somehow speaking to the Chinese situation.  British reviewers have speculated about how this play will be read in the light of the death of a British businessman and the subsequent arrest on suspicion of murder of the wife of a now disgraced senior politician. However, by relocating it into such a lavish, mythical, globalised China ‘brand’ past, the production appears to be deflecting any direct references to the here and now.  Yet in the Found in Translation lecture on the Sunday evening by Frances Wood, the curator of the British Museum Chinese collections, she did find an ancient parallel with China’s founder Emperor Qin, of Terracotta Warrior fame. His successes (unification of the country, money, standardised script etc) are often outweighed by the stories of his brutality and wickedness.  However, these stories, like the stories about Richard III written under the Tudors, including Shakespeare’s play, were written by the dynasty that came after him, and have to be considered in the light of the new ruler’s propaganda.  Living in York myself, my sympathies are naturally with history’s much maligned ‘villain’…

But let’s get to the performance itself.  It was a Saturday afternoon and the theatre was packed – families, students, Chinese, non-Chinese.  Among the aims of the Globe to Globe festival is to target the communities who share a language with the productions and to bring new audiences to Shakespeare.  They had certainly succeeded with the first, and judging by the youth of much of the audience, including a high percentage of Chinese students, they appear to have succeeded with the second.  The Globe is an appropriate place for Chinese theatre, because its ornate, outdoor thrust stage has many similarities with traditional Chinese outdoor theatres.  In fact, the stage at the ancient library in the southern city of Ningbo is remarkably close in design, although, of course, most theatres in China are indoor prosceniums these days.

Richard III (c) NTC

A red sign emblazoned with black Chinese characters sat on two chairs centre stage.  ‘That must say Richard III,’ commented the woman sitting behind me.  I looked at it more closely.  Yes, it must, but something was wrong.  I was sure the Chinese title had four characters, not two, and anyway, the character for ‘third’ should have been three horizontal lines, not three vertical lines.  The man sitting the other side of me leant across and whispered, ‘My Chinese friend says it’s a trick – it’s English…’ I saw it immediately, now that I knew: it was square-word calligraphy, in which Roman letters are arranged in a box to simultaneously reflect the English word (Richard, in this case) and resemble the strokes of a Chinese character. This encapsulated this production as a whole, as Shakespeare’s text was reconfigured through traditional (and non-traditional) Chinese performance codes to produce a performance that is recognisable but completely new, something that is intentionally designed to cross continents and cultures. Li Ruru, author of Shashabiya: Staging Shakespeare in China, explores this further on the Shakespeare’s Globe Blog.

The chairs on stage looked a little battered, and a table in front of the ‘throne’ looked decidedly like a coffee table, not really reflecting the prop designs I was imagining from my visit to the Bird’s Egg.  Then Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Globe, came on to introduce the company.

‘We have a slight problem,’ he said.  ‘A crate full of costumes and props set sail from China seven weeks ago, but thanks to the wonderful British weather the port at Felixstowe has been closed, and the container ship is sitting out in the English Channel, among the backlog, waiting to be let in.’ Remember that cancelled train? I said the rain and its travel disruptions would be important. ‘But don’t worry,’ he continued, ‘we’ve rummaged in the Globe wardrobes and props cupboard, and our costumiers have been running up garments all day yesterday! And even without the wonderful costumes that were made for this production, we can promise you an afternoon of magnificent theatre!’ Or words to that effect.  Well, that explains the coffee table, I thought…

Richard III’s coronation (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

So the cast performed mostly in an array of black robes that looked like they had been recycled from Doctor Faustus, or black martial arts practice kit, apart from the emperor(s)/king(s), who wore a lemon yellow cotton dressing gown to indicate status. This, of course, was nothing like the Imperial Yellow robes that were bobbing about on the storm-tossed seas, but it didn’t matter a jot.  This performance reminded the audience that costumes and props are not always so integral to the mise-en-scene, especially, as I suggested earlier, in a depoliticised reading of this play.  We were soon roaring with laughter and appreciation.  The production was huaju, spoken theatre, but had incorporated many elements from traditional theatre forms such as Beijing Opera, jingju.  For example, battles were symbolically choreographed as a flag-dance between the standard bearers.  Whilst the sparkling eyed villain Richard confided to the audience with early modern/Brechtian candour, he was largely naturalistic.  In contrast, Lady Anne delivered her lines with the high-pitched, stylized recitation style of a Beijing Opera female role.  Likewise, her movements were slow, with very specific hand-gestures. Because the sound of Beijing Opera is very different from Western Opera, this can seem strange, sometimes alienating for Western audiences, if also hauntingly beautiful, yet this added to the effectiveness of the juxtaposition, because another person’s grief is alienating and difficult.  Its sudden intrusion into the duologue also added a sense of intercultural distancing.  We stopped and noticed the hybridity, just as we had when we took a second look at the square-word calligraphy.  Or at least, the Western and older Chinese audience did.  For many young Chinese, new to theatre going, this increasingly Sinocised form of huaju may become the norm.  The mixing of forms is often not as overt as in a touring/tourist production such as this, but it is there nonetheless. The production’s East/West audience also meant that it simultaneously contained  different culturally specific semiotic codes.  Thus, Chinese in the audience may have read Queen Elizabeth’s white handkerchief as an omen of her husband Edward’s demise, because in China white, not black, is the traditional colour for mourning.  After his death, she wiped his throne with it as if mopping his brow, unable to let go.

The seduction, NTC (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Despite these moments, the NTC played Richard III as tragicomedy.  The actors are not allocated to roles in the programme, but I think that Richard was played by Zhang Dongyu.  He reminded me a little of Derek Jacobi in the Renaissance Theatre production I saw many years ago. Jacobi’s Richard was Vice, seducing the audience, stirring up the crowd, and making us understand, in a way that Ian McKellan’s terrifying film villain will never make us understand, just how the fictional Richard got away with what he did.  Zhang’s Richard shared many of the same techniques, if not the exact same cultural connotations: he entertained us with his villainy.  When Lady Anne spat in his face, he lasciviously rubbed it in, like a man in an aftershave advertisement.  Interestingly, however, in a borrowed green Globe coat and relocated into this nominally Christian space, he suggested the prelapsarian serpent, too.

The two murderers were also comic – quite literally, their moves and facial gestures were those of the chou or traditional Chinese opera clowns.  This was verified for me the next day, when pictures of the performers in their costumes in China were put on display in the foyer.  The murderers wore the jingju make-up of the comedic character roles. As the noble Clarence slept, the murderers, who had just bamboozled the Keeper, crept around the stage, sharpening their swords on the soles of their shoes, then grappling with their soul’s conscience by signing themselves with the Christian cross, then sitting down to waste time and counting ‘one, two, three’ in English.

The young prince rides to London, NTC (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

When Lady Anne later doubled as the Young Prince, s/he carried a stick and pranced into London on an imaginary steed.  If the props had arrived, the crop’s tassels would have indicated even more clearly that we were meant to see a horse.

This production did not only borrow from other forms, however; it also borrowed from other texts.  The prophecy about ‘a man whose name begins with G’ was brought by three witches as the play suddenly seemed to morph into Macbeth.  Queen Margaret, bent double with a gnarled walking stick, transformed into a formidable sorceress as she cursed the new king and his family.  Then, in the most powerful visual representation of the play, she came back to curse from the heavens as each character met his or her death. This was most magnificent and most moving when Clarence finally succumbed to the murderers.  He may have been standing on a coffee table, but it did nothing to diminish the pathos of the moment as they stood in tableau, his arms stretched out, the murderer-clowns’ swords thrust through him.  Instead of falling to the ground, however, Clarence stepped down, the assassins’ threw a black cloth over his head and shoulders, and thus veiled he left the stage, a dead man walking.

This motif recurred with chilling predictability throughout the rest of the play.

Macbeth  echoed again when, as king, Richard drew on red gloves.

The clowns entered re-entered as a two-headed Tyrell to murder the princes, perhaps comically undermining the later guilt of a man who will not equivocate until after successfully completing the deed. Or perhaps indicating something completely different, because I could understand very little of what he/they said…

This was not an intellectual, existentialist meditation on power, corruption and deceit, but it was thought-provoking.  Richard’s deformity was only visible to the audience in moments of extremity when his body twisted to embody his thoughts.  As he hid under the coffee table during the curse of his nightmarish last night, writhing like a snake disturbed in its hole, I felt pity as well as disgust.  And he entertained us until the very end – charging courageously into battle, and even momentarily coming back from the dead to croak, hilariously by the third time, ‘My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!’  要一匹马! 要一匹马!愿以王位许之!Which was the only phrase, other than combinations of common verbs and pronouns, that I could fully understand in the entire production!

National Theatre of China (c) Shakespeare’s Globe

The costumes would have added to the spectacle, but the lack of them did nothing to diminish the impact of the players on the stage.

Dual language podcast here.