If you’re staging all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, in 37 different languages, then you sure as hell better get the surtitles right. Unfortunately, rather than translating the text, the surtitles used for the Globe to Globe season, simply – oh so simply – summarise each scene. It’s a bit like reading those awful York notes, alongside the production: ‘Richard pretends to be modest, making a show of refusing to accept power’. Not only does this reduce each scene – and give the sense that it is over before it has even begun – but it means the English section of the audience is left feeling a little abandoned, feeding on the scraps of meaning those scant surtitles provide.
This dubious decision has made it very hard for the visiting companies: do they go for broad, panto style theatre – in order to draw everyone in – or do they stick to their guns, teasing out subtleties and hoping those who only speak English will somehow keep up? The National Theatre of China has an even tougher task, since their costumes are still floating out at sea, in a rather Twelfth Night-esque twist. Essentially then, they must translate ‘Richard III, without language and with very few visual aids. An Olympian challenge, indeed.
The company must also reinterpret Shakespeare, without relying on his natural rhythms. Mandarin is quite a hard-hitting language – packed with monosyllabic words – and the cast’s delivery sounds a little monotonous. It’s hard to make out those elegant swoops, dips and swerves in Shakespeare’s text. The company works hard at finding other ways to break up the script. Sometimes, the actors sing their speeches. When Lady Ann mourns her husband death, she sounds like a desolate nightingale. When Margaret predicts Richard’s downfall, she is one of the few actors to really shout; a foghorn of despair.
Director Wang Xiaoying also breaks things up, by teasing out some interesting physical performances. There is an arresting moment, when Ann laments her marriage to Richard, and circles the stage in a solemn dance. It feels like she’s marking out the boundaries of her new and horribly limited life. Xiaoying also explores Richard’s character, through the actor’s movements. This Richard III (possibly played by Zhang Donghyu. though the programme is unhelpfully vague) might not have a hump – but he is thoroughly twisted inside. After certain pivotal moments, Donghyu twists up his limbs, freezing them in ugly contortions. The on-stage musician also helps accent the play, with ingenious riffs on his mystical array of instruments.
But for all these elegant solutions, there are also a number of overblown touches. The comic sections really grate: it’s as if the director has gone through the script with a massive highlighter, fiercely slashing through all the j-o-k-e-s. Richard’s hired executioners are re-imagined as two comic, gymnastic sidekicks, who express their reservations through back flips, camp tiptoeing and flippant fights. The audience is encouraged to laugh at death and the play’s intensity – and Richard’s power – diminishes rapidly with every chuckle.