Despite continuous rain and the inadequate costumes and props, the performance of Shakespeare's Richard III in Mandarin won thunderous and lasting applause Saturday afternoon.
"The performance is wonderful with a lot of Chinese elements in it," said David Deacon who bought the lower gallery tickets and watched the play with his wife.
To celebrate the birthday of great playwright William Shakespeare and the hosting of the London Olympics, Shakespeare's Globe has invited troupes from around the world to perform there in 37 languages. The National Theater of China will stage three performances of Shakespeare's play Richard III during the weekend.
In an interview with Xinhua, Wang Xiaoying, director of the play and vice president of the theater, disclosed that they at first wanted to choose from Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, as well as Richard III.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare's earliest and lengthiest works and a rendition of the play requires painstaking efforts
"This is one of his most tragic plays," Wang said. "It has always been acclaimed as a masterpiece, and as famous as Hamlet. It reflected different sides of human nature, with great potential to tap."
The two-and-a-half hour version turned Richard from a handicapped person to a normal one. "Some other directors have portrayed him as a normal person before as well," Wang said. "In fact, the real Richard in history was not handicapped at all. We don't want to make his disability a reason behind his desire for power. In other words, we don't want to make him starkly different from ordinary people."
The play also borrowed an act from Macbeth showing three witches making prophecies to the king.
Wang has added many elements of the Beijing Opera into the play as well. "We have three opera performers joining our play," he said. One of the performers acted as Lady Ann, who sang to show her grief and hesitation, while two others were the assassins who impressed audiences with their martial arts and funny behavior.
A percussionist played as many as 10 traditional Chinese musical instruments to create the effect of tension and mystery. "The drumbeats not only showed the tempo of the play, but reflected the emotion of different characters," Wang said.
All the characters in the play wore traditional Han Chinese robes. When Richard had a nightmare, the ghosts surrounding him all put on masks with Beijing opera makeup. As he was captured by his rival in the end, he yelled desperately "give me a horse," while red ink, resembling blood, trickles down from a piece of white paper, symbolizing the death of the tyrant.
The performance, however, was not hitch-free. As the arrival of the shipping container carrying their costumes and props was delayed by sea storms, actors had to borrow some from the Shakespeare's Globe.
Nevertheless, audiences did not hide their enthusiam for the play.
Although it was chilly on Saturday with showers drenching the outdoor amphitheater, the seats were almost fully booked. In the middle of the theater, those who bought standing tickets watched attentively, ignoring the rain.
When Richard decided to succeed the throne, audiences saluted to him together with the actors on the stage. At the end, actors and the director paid homage to Shakespeare and responded to repeated curtain calls, while audiences clapped for as long as several minutes.
Deacon and his wife Assata, fans of Shakespeare, had watched different versions of Richard III and seen the film of the same name for many times. This time they came especially for a taste of the Chinese elements.
Asked if they could understand the play in Mandarin, Deacon said: "We are very familiar with it. The actors can get themselves across with their gestures."
He said the main actor was a "stylist" and Lady Ann impressed him with her elegance. "She moved in the Chinese opera style quite gracefully," he said.
Commenting on the others, he said the one who played the role of Hastings was a "fine actor," and Buckingham who dashed downstairs into the crowd must be the favorite for standing audiences.
Assata found the Macbeth act "intriguing." "Progress of this play was quite like Macbeth," she said. "The three witches could help show the inner feelings of the character Richard."
The old couple also said they didn't believe the lack of costumes and props had compromised the effect of the performance. "In Shakespeare's time, he had little costume as well," Deacon said, adding that without the fanciful costumes, performing skills of the actors were more important, and "they did well."
Wang, the director, saw the costume problem in another way. "The performance today could be very different from that of tomorrow, when everything arrives," he said. "In a way, we played here two versions of Richard III."
Talking about the storm that held up the container, he became philosophical. "Shakespeare described several storms, as in the Merchant of Venice, the Twelfth Night, and the Tempest, but they all have a good ending. The storm brought us a windfall as well."
Wang said he was delighted to see local audiences enjoy the play. "This is the first time a mainstream troupe from China has mounted the mainstream stage in the UK," he said. "This is a special experience for all of us. We are creating a dialogue for Chinese and Western cultures."
After the two-day performance, the National Theater will bring the play back to China and entertain home audiences on July 4 in the Capital Theater.