Shakespeare’s RichardIII in Chuju Style
Is Shakespearian tragedy suitable for a Chinese scene? What will Chinese people think about a Western story with a Chinese disguise? What could a Westerner have to say about it? I can only try to answer the last. As in everything regarding beauty and harmony, in Chinese tradition, the paradox of art is to achieve naturalness by the most artificial means. In actors’ gesture: they are required to realize symbols, not to perform actions. Hence this luxury of dance and codified movements expresses meanings that speech fails to convey. We see this in their costumes, as well: magnificent garments and heavy make up hiding the features of the human body and giving actors the hieratic faces of living statues.
In fact, the Chu opera (Chuju), a local form of Chinese opera, is a totally encompassing form of art, merging into an integrated whole music, dance, speech, and dress. By a magical detour, actors and musicians create the illusion of life and motion by means we rarely see in real life. As in a dream, princesses
and heroes of ancient times are brought back to life for us; as in an enchantment, symbols are not icons anymore, but they are the reality they stand for. Far from being abstract and dry, Chu opera is riveting from beginning to end: spirit, as well as senses, are captivated by the abundance of colors and forms.
On the afternoon of September 7, 2018, the first attempt to adapt Shakespeare’s tragedy RichardIII into a Chu opera was put on stage. As for this specific performance, one might argue that the complexity and depth of the original was lost in translation. But Western producers themselves often simplify the text, by suppressing characters or omitting lines. As everything deeply spiritual, real theater was never written, but only performed. If the show achieves its goal, touches and moves the spectator, is the letter of the text that important? Leaving aside the specificities of the fights of Plantagenet and Tudor, this Chu opera recreates the universal story of man’s struggle for power. The Chinese title, Royal Horse
Story , emphasizes what seems to be a detail in the original, when the king is asking “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for my horse.” By an ingenious invention, this horse becomes a central character of the play, embodied by an actor, like a Puck or an Ariel. Here is an example of a symbol standing for itself: the malice of the cunning Richard III is shown to the spectator as an actual thing. The same could be said when the new king and his brother’s widow share a nuptial cup to celebrate their wedding: this simple action is in fact arousing terror and pity in the spectator’s heart.
To conclude I would like to report a very special incident. Although it is regarded as conceited to talk about one’s own experience, and even if I am fully aware of my own subjectivity, I am convinced this account of my thoughts might please those interested in the vicissitudes of the human mind.
Richard III, here styled King Wu, in a climax of violence, ended
up fighting his own subjects to defend his stolen throne. The stage became a pandemonium where dancing soldiers were surrounding the cornered prince. I was captivated by this desperate bout, muffled by the sound of the music. I already knew that King Wu would lose: is it not the rule of a tragedy? Yet, combat is even more fascinating when it is desperate. When the engagement was the more strenuous, when my whole spirit was attached to those warriors, not dancing anymore but flying, when I was myself almost in a trance, the prince lost his wig because of the false move of an actor.
There was no prince anymore, no soldiers and no war: I suddenly realized that this battle was an illusion. Can I describe the feeling of emptiness overwhelming my heart? I was only shuddering for a man with a wig and a plastic spear. The performance soon ended, as if actors knew the sorcery was shattered and any further attempt would be condemned to be an idle waste of time; but the falling of the wig left with me a disagreeable impression.
Is there a better proof, even though it is a negative one, of the suggestive power of this kind of theater? The bare head of the actor was, by contrast, emphasizing the artificial and supernatural, almost hieratic, life on stage.
G o d e f r o y L e p y, a french c i t i zen w ho has been living in Wuhan for three years, was invited to see a Chinese adaptation of Shakespeare’sRichardIII as a Chu opera, the traditional form of dramatic art from Hubei.