It became obvious within moments of the lights going up on the National Theatre of China's Richard III, which plays through Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU, that all was not well with the venue's titling system. The three helpfully placed display screens appeared locked for the first few minutes, and once they started operating properly never looked quite right for the full running time of two hours and 40 minutes. By the time they even got fired up, most of the War of the Roses had been waged (by stately actors attacking each other with red and white flags), Edward IV had ascended to the throne, and Richard had plowed through his famous "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech and into the following scene — and then, all that was titled were basic screen descriptions, not a single line of dialogue!
For a production delivered entirely in Chinese, this could be a problem for many in the audience. But stripping William Shakespeare's tense political drama of its language ultimately did not matter much. In telling the story of a royal outcast who schemes and murders his way to the throne, director Wang Xiaoying has deployed a bounty of techniques to communicate all the broader feelings and issues at play, preventing the show, even if presented entirely in Chinese, from being confusing or remote.
Hints of kung fu pepper the action, most notably when the two killers — presented by Cai Jingchao and Zhang Zhiyong as both highly acrobatic and highly comic — confront the imprisoned Clarence (Wang Lifu) in the Tower of London. Queen Margaret (She Nannan), supremely terrifying, wafts between being a real, vengeful woman and Richard's tormented conscious as she screams her protestations from a platform high above the stage as the walls below her literally bleed with each new kill that occurs. When Richard meets his end, an epic battle somehow erupts between Richard (Zhang Dongyu) and Richmond (Li Jianpeng), though fewer than half a dozen performers are involved, and the combatants meet on the field for mere seconds. And Richard's epic, ironic cry, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" echoes literally and figuratively throughout the theater and even descends from the flies printed as if with blood in three different languages (including English) on white banners.
Much of it is at once restrained and dazzling, filtered through a Beijing Opera aesthetic that heightens the emotions against an intentionally distant background. The wailing and keening manner of Lady Ann (Zhang Xin) and Queen Elizabeth (a serene, moving Wang Xiaomei) is foremost among these, the agony cutting through the air on a soprano cry of shattering honesty. Sounds provided by the onstage percussionist (Wang Jianan), grant extra confusion, resignation, and suspense as required, suggesting how little difference there can be between the sound of cascading tears and marching military footsteps.
As you may have guessed, traditional interpretations do not exactly abound. That starts with Richard, whom Zhang plays as not disfigured at all; his hunch and lamp among many weapons that he may wield or sheathe at will. Shelving the typical grotesque characteristics in favor of more outwardly seductive ones is an even starker departure from the norm than was Mark Rylance's recent (superb) Broadway turn, but it imbues both the role and the show with a more menacing atmosphere that pays off once Richard's debts must be paid.
It works, however, given all the themes that are given a more distinctly Chinese spin. The words "impure ancestry" appear on the titles during the contretemps with the princes as if spat out, for example, and questions about and weight of destiny emanate from Liu Jianzhong's lights with piercing acuity. Whenever Richard is least sure of who he is and what he's doing, the moments are greatly amplified; rarely, for example, have I seen his late visitation by the ghosts of his victims as spiritually unsettling as it is here, where the actors, clad in face-wrapping masks, conjure swirling impressions of generations of disappointment pressing down on a man who's too long had only his own interests at heart.
But, this production argues, power has a way to do that. The moral of it all seems to be that there's not much difference between one ruler and another: The costumes and coronation rituals surrounding the ascension of Edward, Richard, and Richmond to the eerily smiling throne placed far upstage are all functionally identical and momentous, reinforcing how temporary even the most historic accomplishments — and people — really are. Cynical? Sure. Accurate? Probably. That's why the lack of English is so irrelevant with this Richard III. Even if it's in a language we don't know, and a concept we've never before seen, it's as achingly familiar as if we understood every word.
National Theatre of China's Richard III