The Play’s the Thing

By Shirong Chen

Actors from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong are returning this summer to London’s south Bank to stage Richard III and Macbeth in Mandarin and Cantonese.

In the inaugural Year of Cultural Exchange between the United Kingdom and China, players from the National Theatre of China and Hong Kong’s Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio will tread the boards of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, a vivid reminder of how the Bard of Avon is a cultural icon with fans in all corners of the planet.

The Chinese are in London to return a visit made by their hosts last year, when a British production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream toured the People’s Republic. Leading the players from China’s National Theatre (NT) is Wang Xiaoying, the theatre’s associate director. He told ChinaReport that his players were excited by the opportunity to show UK audiences their own interpretation of Richard III. Wang added that he hoped the recent rediscovery and reburial of the play’s historical namesake’s remains in Leicester would also give the production a publicity boost.

Wang’s choice of Richard III as the NT’s touring production was an easy one. A life long aficionado of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, he enjoys the challenge of creating darker characters on-stage. Wang also noted that the themes of Richard III lend themselves to dramatic technique, staging and costume design of the Chinese theatre.

The NT production is working from a translation by noted Shakespeare scholar Fang Ping, though the original translated text was shortened from 50,000 Chinese characters to 27,000. Most controversial, however, has been Wang’s decision to present the play’s eponymous twisted, hunchbacked “cockatrice” as a vigorous, able-bodied young man, flying in the face of both textual description and, now, archaeological evidence. However, staff at the Globe have allegedly kept their reservations about Wang’s creative decision to themselves.

Tim Bird, director of the Globe to Globe festival, told ChinaReport that the rationale behind the Globe to Globe Festival, and for inviting Chinese artists, is that “it’s a really rewarding experience to watch for different ways of telling the same story. It’s amazing to hear the words translated into such a different language.” In addition, the incorporation of traditional Chinese theatrical gesture, musical elements and costume, all make this touring production a “new experience” for the Globe’s audiences.

Cultural Deficit

Academics may fret about the pros and cons of translating foreign plays, but, according to some accounts, Shakespeare has been performed in China in the Chinese language since the 1930s. As in the rest of the world, moreover, Shakespeare’s plots have found their way into a variety of local genres in China. Famous Shakespearean quotations are so well-known among China’s reading public that, in some cases, they are not necessarily even placed as being of foreign origin. Last September, the UK government announced a 1.5 million pound project that would translate Shakespeare’s Complete Works into Chinese, as well as key Chinese plays into English.

The seemingly triumphant return of Chinese players to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a case in point, after drawing crowds for their previous performance, just prior to the 2012 London Olympics. The NT sees their production as paying homage to the Bard; they look forward to performing on the worldfamous reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre.

The NT production of Richard III is perhaps most significant because it represents one of the few cultural exports that China has managed to produce despite the government’s evermore trenchant insistence on the need to expand its soft power. Whether measured by box office takings or critical acclaim, the products of China’s largely State-controlled creative industries, and certainly those that receive an official seal of approval, are failing to match the returns in China of even just the UK’s equivalent cultural exports.

In the past decade, Chinese artists have visited and performed overseas on countless occasions, but have rarely been able to cover their costs. China tours by Western artists, musicians and writers, meanwhile, are consistently well-attended, with some stars even seeing China as a means to boost dwindling returns at home. Shakespeare’s Globe will send a production of Hamlet to China this year, a tour already being predicted to be a commercial success.

Modern British classics are also doing well in China, with a production of War Horse, a collaboration between London’s National Theatre and the National Theatre of China, set to open to Chinese audiences in September. An all-Chinese cast directed by British veterans of the National Theatre is expected to produce an authentic and moving adaptation of one of the most popular British plays in recent decades.

While Chinese creatives are acutely aware of their current “cultural deficit” with the West, and official efforts to address this issue by showcasing Confucius via a network of government-sponsored institutes, most are in agreement that the State alone cannot stand as the sole arbiter of what is, and is not, contemporary and traditional Chinese culture. It will be a while before a cultural trade balance between China and the West can be achieved.

Shakespeare’s Globe, on London’s South Bank, will host two Chinese touring companies this summer

Shakespeare’s Globe, on London’s South Bank, will host two Chinese touring companies this summer

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