by: JK Clarke
There’s no better way to determine the value of language in Shakespeare than to see a performance of one of the great plays in a foreign tongue. While the storylines and themes may be universal and, ultimately, entertaining, it’s quickly apparent that the original poetry, clever asides and nuances of specifically chosen words, lend something—while somewhat intangible—completely vital. Like reading Proust in English, however good the translation, the sonorous tone is simply lost. Such was the experience as the National Theater of China recently performed Shakespeare’s Richard III at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Arts, as part of their Visions + Voices: China series.
To be sure, the National Theatre of China (NTC) is a remarkable performing arts organization. Their Richard III is beautifully acted and production elements, like costume, set design and the live percussionist (providing mood and sound effects), are gorgeous. Richard III, of course, is the story of the evil and crooked Duke of Gloucester and how he manipulates and slaughters his way to the throne. Director Wang Xiaoying has chose an interesting path with this production. In it, Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, plays a much larger role, following her curses on the vast majority of the plays’ characters for perceived (and likely real) betrayals. Ordinarily, Margaret all but disappears for the next several acts, but here she is a ghostly spectre, hauntingly ranting from a perch above the stage, re-asserting her curses as they come to pass. This makes for a mood of pre-ordained disaster and tragedy, casting the play into even darker shadows.
There are some unusual elements in the play, particularly the the two murderers used by Richard to do away with his rivals. The roles are written as morally conflicted characters who are ashamed of the deeds they must commit, and proceed with their grim tasks almost apologetically. Here the roles are played by two clownishly costumed acrobats, whose physical skills—as they dance and cartwheel across the stage—are noteworthy, but their character interpretations inappropriate. Their crimes are not humorous. Introspective, yes, but not written for frivolity. To see them portrayed as such is puzzling, at best.
Though the program only lists actors as “Lead Actors” and “Actors” it should be noted that the roles of Richard and Margaret were powerfully played. Regardless, the language barrier often proved too great. And with the first half clocking in at nearly two hours, many audience members were led to believe that the play had ended with newly crowned Richard sitting contentedly in his thrown. But he hadn’t yet offered his kingdom for a horse.
Richard III. Remaining performances: March 30: 8pm; March 31: 3pm. At the NYU Skirball Center for the Arts (566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square). www.nyuskirball.org