Taiwan Bangzi Opera: A Tribute to Shakespeare, Greenwood Theatre, KCL, Sept 11 2009.
I went along to this performance full of excitement and expectation. Firstly, I was wondering how the traditional opera company would appropriate a story which is so loaded for a western audience. (Intriguingly, Li Ruru gave a presentation at Nottingham Ningbo in 2008 in which she introduced a production of Merchant in which the Shylock character was simply a greedy Chinese moneylender, removing any reference of race or religion from the storyline.) Aside from this, I have missed the ‘strange sounds’ of Chinese opera: the high-pitched singing, initially unrecognisable as such to untrained western ears, the frantic dungdungdungdung of the cymbal, the strains of the erhu, all accompanied by acrobatics, elaborate costumes and stylized gestures, which nine times out of ten filled the afternoon television schedules (between documentaries on road-building) when I first lived in the People’s Republic of China. I would certainly get my opera fix at this performance, although I found the transformation of the play’s characters a little more problematic.
We saw two extracts, ‘The Bond’ and ‘The Debate’. In the post-Holocaust west, it is difficult to see Shylock portrayed as a comic villain, one minute testing his blade on his boot, the next trembling with cowardice at the act he is about to perform – at which the audience here has no choice but to laugh, because in accordance with the rules of the genre, this confrontation between Shylock and his enemies is clearly meant to be a funny scene. But then Shylock is not Jewish but, according to the subtitles, a Saracen. Although there were ancient Jewish communities in China, most notably the one at Kaifeng in the west of the country, this relocating of Shylock’s ethnic and religious identity does make sense, however, in a Chinese context, as the Silk Road traders led to the significant Muslim presence in China which remains to this day. Yet the replacement of a Jewish Shylock with a Muslim Central Asian Shylock creates its own discomfort if put into the context of current tensions in Xingiang between the Muslim Uyghur and Han, or the worldwide context of post 9/11 Islamaphobia. Because the opera’s comedy relies on racial stereotypes, there is a sense that Shylock becomes a figure of ridicule both for ‘Gratiano’ and for the audience (as he probably would have been for the play’s early modern audience). The turbaned, bearded Xia Lou (Shylock) is dressed in pantomime Persian garb of colourful brocades and heavy jewellery, and using animated, over-emphasised body movements and facial expressions. This costuming of ethnicity immediately emphasises his Otherness, especially when he is juxtaposed throughout with the mediaeval Chinese (or Cathay), dressed in their pale, simple robes, their hair hanging loose, their manner self-contained. This is, of course, at odds with most contemporary readings/performances of Merchant, where by the trial scene, we attempt to distance ourselves from Gratiano’s goading. (Even ‘Hath not a [Saracen] eyes’, which is moved to the trial scene, is used here to underscore Shylock’s dogged determination for revenge rather than work as a plea to the audience for the humanity of all peoples.) When Shylock is finally defeated, his punishment, including a ban on ever wearing such ‘outlandish clothes’ is greeted general with laughter both on-stage and in the audience. The ridiculous, audacious foreigner has had his come-uppance. I find myself sitting in the audience unsure how to respond. The performance is enormous fun, but every politically correct nerve-ending in my body is screaming ‘what about gas-chambers, lynching, gay-bashing, stop-and-search, Guantanamo…?’ Then all the action stops, and Shylock steps forward to sing his final aria, and I am not quite sure why (perhaps a slight change in tone of voice or facial expression?) but he is no more the foreign clown or the evil outsider, but suddenly a tragic hero. In an impassioned diasporic song, that seems to speak as much to the losses of overseas Chinese as to any other community, the performance suddenly realigns itself to my expectations.
At the post-performance discussion the next day, Professor Perng, the English translator, addressed some of these issues. Their Merchant was intended to tackle the problem of racism in contemporary Taiwan, although as religious conflict is not so prevalent, this had been removed. Moreover, to Chinese speakers, many jokes and puns in the language would help reveal this agenda. Shylock’s family name, Xia, is synonymous with the meaning ‘Chinese’, whereas the family name of the Portia figure is common among ethnic Chinese of Muslim descent.
It would be interesting to think further about translation. Professor Perng Ching Hsi, a lecturer in English and drama, translated Shakespeare’s text into Mandarin Chinese, attempting to keep close to the original. Professor Chen Fang, a lecturer in Chinese theatre, transformed his translation into the language, form and conventions of Bangzi Opera. Perng then re-translated the Chinese opera back into English for the subtitles.
The figure of the miserly money lender is already a stock character in traditional Chinese drama, according to Zhang Xiaoyang (1996, pp74-5), who compares Shylock to Jia Ren in the comedy A Slave to Money.
Finally, this production featured an all-female cast, reversing Shakespeare’s original. From the Ming dynasty until the Qing, women were outlawed from appearing on stage in China. Now, it appears, women may be more interested in performing traditional opera forms than men.