With the scarcity of east Asian faces in British culture, this past week has been a revelation for London’s theatre-goers.
An appetite for Chinese performance yielded almost capacity audiences and praise for both the National Theatre of China’s Richard III in Mandarin and the Hong Kong Titus Andronicus in Cantonese at the Globe Theatre’s Shakespeare festival.
Director Tang Shuwing’s minimalist physicalised approach eschews the Mandarin production’s Beijing Opera and kung-fu, bringing us a pared-down version closer to Tang’s Parisien theatre training. The only overt Chinese influence is the mesmerising qigong framing device where the actors raise their energy and then ground it after the roller-coaster story ends.
Roman general Titus (Andy Ng Wai-shek) crushes the Goths and returns home with their captive Queen Tamora and her horrible sons in tow. Nobly refusing the throne, he gives it instead to the undeserving Saturninus, whose recklessness make you wonder what the old soldier ever saw in him. When Titus’s daughter Lavinia (an ethereal Lai Yuk-ching) declines the new Emperor’s proposal in favour of his brother to whom she is already betrothed, he weds Tamora and unleashes hell.
Stupid men manipulated by ruthless women have long exerted a misogynistic fascination across the world: in Titus we get it in bucketloads of blood, albeit off-stage in this version. Dowager Empress Cixi, Madam Mao and Gu Kailai have all fed this most enduring of scapegoats, and in the wrathful Tamora (Ivy Pang Ngan-ling in fine scheming form), we see “female evil” personified.
However, it’s a melodrama well served by stylisation. Murder, sex, power and revenge drive this first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, a shocking spectacular famous for the queen who eats her sons baked in a pie, a slew of murders, plus rape and mutilation of the beautiful heroine.
Chu Pak-hong as Tamora’s lover Aaron the Moor is another Iago, a devilish agent of malicious misdeeds. He’s enough of a love-god, though, to make you believe that his “witty queen” would go silly over him even if the birth of their mixed-race baby threatens their downfall. Some disquieting racial banter demonstrates why this “thick-lipped slave” rarely makes it onto the stage nowadays.
With each Cantonese word requiring one syllable, the actors get through the dialogue at quite a lick. Told straight, some of the beauty of the language will have been lost. Nevertheless, there’s more than enough imaginative business in the text to keep cast busy and audience happy.
Anna’s food blog here: