Let's get this straight once and for all: Richard III was an evil, child-killing hunchback whose hatred for his mother was exceeded only by her hatred for him. Right? So how come in China he's tall, handsome, straight-backed – and an evil hunchback?
Because in a recent production by the National Theatre of China, in London's Globe Theatre, the director Wang Xiaoying manages to offer us both sides – the good and the bad – of one of Shakespeare's most complex characters.
Richard Plantagenet’s warped personality both repels and attracts, and all this long before Freud and RD Laing’s theory of the divided self. Let’s face it: what parent hasn’t switched to bad cop when the good cop ploy has failed?
On Saturday, August 22nd, Richard’s memory will again be invoked, during a re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth of 1485, when the last Plantagenet king was defeated by the new Tudor Henry VII.
Bones of a story
A few months ago, while on a visit to the Richard III museum in Leicester, the town where Richard’s skeleton was unearthed, I peered at a model of those bones while the guide shook her head sadly: “His spine must have been like porridge, which meant he would have had a series of body armour made to fit his changing shape.”
But although his body shape may have changed (he suffered from scoliosis) his appeal as a venomously dramatic character hasn’t waned, and it is this that makes him a compelling challenge to director, historian and actor alike.
In a production through Arabic at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford- upon-Avon, Richard was portrayed, chillingly, as Saddam Hussein, while in New York the actor playing him was Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. (I travelled to see that production and was not disappointed.)
Richard has been portrayed as a Nazi army officer and as a psychotic bureaucrat (Tony Blair), but the Chinese production broke new ground by showing us two sides to one complex character: the human version of the snake whose venom can both poison and cure.
The Bard’s ban lifted
In his extensive programme notes, Dennis Kennedy, an emeritus professor of Trinity College Dublin, highlights the period in China from 1966 when Shakespeare, as a foreign writer, was banned for 10 years, which was then followed by a period of transformation when things opened up again. (Indeed, Kennedy was then invited to produce a Chinese-language production of As You Like It.)
The recent Chinese Richard III has freed itself from many western constraints: three witches seem to have migrated from Macbeth; the murderers of the princes appear as acrobatic tumblers with red noses; and the doomed Lady Anne (so cruelly seduced by Richard) delivers her lines as if she were a member of the Beijing National Opera (the latter was pointed out to me by a Cantonese man seated beside me who was somewhat dismissive of this Mandarin production).
But can someone who can’t even order Chinese food without pointing to the pictures on the menu really enjoy a play performed in Mandarin Chinese? Yes.
Granted, the surtitles are a help, but the main interlinking threads of ambition and rejection have been retained. And, as the show has travelled from Beijing, the set is minimal, with the disputed throne the dominant feature.
The final battle is a choreographed event with swords; tension is heightened by a one-man percussion band; and the princes wear symbolic bobble ornaments on their heads to indicate their youth.
The character of Richard III offers great scope to any actor who likes to bathe in the limelight, and actor Zhang Hao is no exception.
His malevolence terrifies Lady Anne so that she trills like a demented bird caught in a mesh of her own making. He smiles sycophantically at the groundlings (the standing members of the audience) as, in English and in Chinese, they vociferously support his claim to the throne.
In most productions, Henry Tudor is bathed in a heroic light, bearing promise of great things to come – Shakespeare, after all, was writing for a Tudor audience. However, in this production, Henry is given short shrift, with the focus all on Richard so that, when his turn comes to die and in the best tradition, he takes a very long time to do it.