Hamlet from China, Part 1: Reality TV, Zombies and Daemons? Shanghai Theatre Academy (P. R. China)

May 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm (Conferences, East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, Trans/Gendered Shakespeare, Translation)

All photographs in this post (c) Saffron Walkling, 2010

Hamlet: That is the Question was put on by the Richard Schechner Center for Performance Studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), and directed by Benjamin Mosse and Richard Schechner (the studio theatre of the Teatrul National ‘Marin Sorescu’, Craiova, Romania: 28th April, 2010)

'Ophelia' (Wang Sainan), me (Saffron Walkling) and 'Horatio' (Sun Qiang)

This was the highlight of the festival for me, partly because it reminded me of living and teaching in China, and because I ate breakfast with ‘Horatio’ and ‘Ophelia’. Twice.  I became quite STA-struck.  Oh yes, and it was rather good…

This was an unusual production in that the cast combined professional actors (Claudius), drama teachers (Gertrude, Hamlet) and students (Horatio, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  The cast and production team were Mainland Chinese, and the directors were American. Therefore, one of the questions for me was: to what extent was this a ‘western’ production and to what extent was it ‘Chinese’?  In the interview we conducted the next day, it was interesting to note how the ‘great’ Richard Schechner, who directed the 2007 and 2009 productions, was referenced in every answer.  This was despite the fact that Benjamin Mosse was the main director of this 2010 revival, and by comparing the programme notes with the performance we saw, he had made some small but significant changes.  ‘Schechner obviously controlled the whole thing,’ one of my colleagues commented afterwards.  I’m not so sure, however.  I think there was a certain amount of ‘face-work’ taking place, and Confucian reverence for ‘the Master’.  The Player King (Ma Junfeng) spoke with considerable authority about the use of Beijing Opera during the play within the play, which had been localised into the Beijing Opera form.  As in Elizabethan England, the best theatre troupes and actors would be summoned to perform at court. Furthermore, in a private conversation, Laertes (Wang Meng), one of the original cast members, explained the genesis of the production: ‘When we began this project, Schechner let us to read the play and come to our own understanding; then he gave us his understanding.  Our understanding was here’ (he held one hand six inches to the left of his face) ‘and Schechner’s was here!’ (he held his other hand six inches to the right). ‘So, Schechner let us to do more reading to bring us in to here,’ (he slowly moved his hand to in front of his nose) ‘and we explained to Schechner until he came to here…’ (he slowly moved his right hand to join the left).  ‘After long time, we met in middle,’ he concluded, satisfied. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the rehearsal room.

Laertes (Wang Meng)

In some ways I felt it was the one production we saw which truly took all of its largely Romanian and/or English speaking audience into the imaginative space that is opened up when the spectators do not share the language or culture of the performers.   There were Romanian and English surtitles projected onto the wall, but due to a technical glitch, these were out of sync with the actors’ Mandarin Chinese.  The result was a happy one, nonetheless, as the audience was forced to pull itself away from the dominance of the written word and actually focus on the performance, although I feel that we missed a lot of the jokes, and some key interpretive moments.  With my limited Mandarin, I picked up that, as Polonius’ pontificated about different genres of drama, he had localised them into different regional opera forms.  Obviously, as we were attending the Worldwide Hamlet conference, the majority of the audience had a fairly good knowledge of the play.  Furthermore, key lines in the play (‘To be or not to be’, ‘Oh that such a noble mind’ etc) were delivered in English, allowing us to locate ourselves within the story.  What was fascinating was how varied the different understandings of this production were, particularly around Horatio/Hamlet/Ophelia, and how strongly these responses were influenced by people’s preconceptions of or experiences of China.  An older Romanian scholar saw secret police in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and in the red money envelopes slipped to them by Claudius, Mao’s Little Red Book. A young Polish scholar read the patriarchal oppression of Eastern women in the fate of Ophelia, whereas another older Romanian scholar saw her as a Red Guard! And as for the kiss between Hamlet and Horatio (addressed in my next post) Joan, a retired British teacher who had been born in China, exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe this is Chinese.  In fact, some of the cast must be Chinese American.  I can’t believe that Mainland Chinese would act this!’ I think this comment reflected her expectations of social conservatism in Chinese culture rather than her own conservatism.

Speaking of expectations, many in the audience had expected the play to be localised into a Chinese opera, much as Ryutopia’s Hamlet, two nights previously, had used Noh and other traditional Japanese forms to retell Shakespeare’s play.  ‘I wouldn’t have understood why it wasn’t Peking (Beijing) Opera if it hadn’t been for your paper,’ one delegate said to me later (my paper had been on Lin Zhaohua’s avant-garde, spoken drama Hamuleite).   The director of this STA production, Benjamin Mosse, explained during the interval why they too had opted for contemporary dress spoken drama:  ‘We didn’t want to exoticise the production’, he said, raising some interesting issues that we didn’t have time to address, but that  I will hopefully have the opportunity to discuss further in the future.  Personally, I found the STA adaptation’s engagement with contemporary Chinese forms and popular culture more fascinating. This is partly because I am working on the development of huaju (spoken drama) at the moment, and because I am interested in the crossover between theatre and media such as film and TV. And although Ma Junfeng (Head Player) later insisted ‘Beijing Opera influence every Chinese people life more or less’, my students insist that it’s only old people and laowai (foreigners) who ever seem to go to see it…

A central feature of this production was the use of cameras, filming the action and projecting it onto the wall at the back of the stage.  But, unlike Polski Theatre’s Metro CCTV cameras or David Tennant’s discovery of one of Claudius’ hidden cameras in the recent RSC Hamlet, the suggestion was not of surveillance but celebrity/reality TV. The red-waist-coated TV crew continually followed the protagonists around the stage, capturing their most intimate or painful moments in order to blaze them on the screens for public consumption.  This turned the tables on the king and Polonius during the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene: no longer hidden behind an arras, their reactions to the scene were revealed to all as if they were contestants on Big Brother.  Polonius looked on hurt, bemused, and completely powerless while Hamlet, his daughter’s childhood friend and potential fiancé, physically and verbally abused her.  At the words ‘I loved you not!’, perhaps already subconsciously aware that Hamlet’s desires lay in another direction, Claudius’ face registered chilling confirmation of the danger he faced from his nephew/son. Zheng Xing (Claudius), a theatre and film actor, commented that the use of the cameras also added to the process of estrangement: ‘It was theatre but not theatre, film but not film, life but not life.’ And perhaps reality, but not reality?

Gertrude (Liu Wangling)

The dais, on which Claudius and the Queen were enthroned, later opened up to reveal itself to be a crate of earth: Ophelia’s grave.  After the fiasco of her burial, the dais was not closed, leaving the grave open throughout the final scenes. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the production was suddenly noticing that Claudius, realising that Gertrude had already drunk from the poisoned cup before he could stop her, had silently stepped into the open grave.  From there, he stoically awaited his execution.  At the very end of the production, all the characters – Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – stood motionless in the grave, fixed stares on their faces: as if facing a firing squad, perhaps, or else rising en-masse from the dead. Only Horatio, in darkness, stood outside, from where he instructed the guards to shoot, simultaneously suggesting mass execution or his own self-destruction.  Earlier, after Ophelia’s death, there had been a strange moment of frenzied dancing by all these corpses and soon-to-be corpses, to rock music, with mops…  Several delegates, who clearly knew much more about the work of Richard Schechner than I did, assured me that this was typical of his work and was something to do with Shamanic ritual.  I had lived in China, what did I know about Chinese shamanism?  Nothing, I answered.  I had thought it was reference to zombie movies…

I found the mop motif slightly bizarre, but it gradually  captured my imagination.  These were typical Chinese cloth mops, with long wooden handles, just like the one I had in the corner of my bathroom in Jinan, that were used to different effect throughout the performance.  Their main symbolism was that ‘nothing could clean away the dirt in society’ (Yang Jungxia, stage manager).  Sometimes they were simply mops.  Sometimes they were quite comic, as in the beginning of the fencing scene when they became Hamlet’s and Laertes’ foils and the audience was encouraged to cheer for whoever they wanted to win.  But in other places they became threatening, rods for a beating that could do real damage.  When Ophelia entered mad, she used one first as a phallus, then as a weapon.  When she threw the mop away from her, crying he is ‘dead and gone’, it became an object of great pathos, too.

Doubling was also extremely effective.  As the actor playing the ghost also played the Player King, it raised questions about who was directing whom.  Hamlet repeated the lines of both the ghost and the Player King: ‘To me, the ghost and the Player King are the same’ (Xue Guanglei, Hamlet).  Thus, his dead father is closely manipulating Hamlet as he lays the ‘Mousetrap’.  When the dead Polonius re-entered as the priest about to inter Ophelia, it shocked the audience (compare Polonius reappearing as the gravedigger in Brook, Bouffes du Nord, 2000), but  it also emphasised the inseparability of Polonius and Ophelia in this production (see next post). Most interesting, however, was Claudius’ actual double, Little Claudius, played by the childlike Yin Lanjing, also doubling as Osric.  Little Claudius, according to ‘Big’ Claudius (Zheng Xing) is his soul and also ‘a kind of pet’.  In her catlike movements, she could ‘say something Claudius cannot express [in public]. For  example, Hamlet is a kind of threat; I can express this in my form’ (Yin).  She reminded me of a familiar or even a daemon (of the kind recently reimagined by Philip Pulman in his Dark Materials trilogy). Her presence had the added effect of centralising Claudius, whose state of mind became as important – if not more so – than Hamlet’s.  Zheng related this double back to the concepts of ‘environmental theatre’ that lay behind this production.  But as Benjamin Mosse announced, in his introduction to the performance, that he would not ‘discuss the ideas of meta, environmental and community theatre that we’re evoking’, I’ll just have to go off and read some Performance Theory…

Shanghai Theatre Academy cast and crew 2010

The above reflection is based on my notes taken during the performance, the programme notes and an interview with cast members and production team the morning after the performance, which was conducted by Nicoleta Cinpoeş (Worldwide Hamlet Conference organiser, University of Worcester), myself (University of York), Aneta Mancewitz (Kazimierz Wielki University) and April Chaplin (OCR).

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