Chinese students interpret ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Saturday 17th December 2011, Nanjing University.

The Merchant of Venice was the first recorded play by Shakespeare put on by Chinese actors, performed (in English?) by the students of St John’s College, Shanghai (?) in 18xx (Li and Dolby).  Since then, it has been one of the most popular Shakespeare plays in Mainland China.  My friend Xu Yang recalls a children’s story she read of it as a young girl, Li Ruru introduced extracts of a Beijing Opera version at the Crossing Continents conference at the University of Nottingham-Ningbo in 2008, explaining that a greedy moneylender was already a stock character in Chinese drama, and the Taiwan Bangzi troupe relocated it to China in the Ming Dynasty, with a Muslim Shylock far from home (extract presented in London, 2009).

Last Saturday, I was invited to watch and feedback on a rehearsal by a group of Nanjing University students who were preparing two extracts to be sent to the first round of the competition of Chinese Universities Shakespeare Festival in Hong Kong, which brings together students and scholars from across the Chinese speaking world. The extracts I saw were directed by a post-graduate student and performed by three undergraduates, one male and two female, and they had chosen the first encounter between Shylock, Antonio and Bassanio, and the trial scene.  They had bridged this with Antonio’s opening soliloquy.

Their intention is to present the scenes in Renaissance costume, with the first scene in the open market place and the second the court, but for now they were in their winter clothes in a chilly empty classroom, acting to three teachers and the wall.

Their word-perfectness several weeks before the recording needed to be entered was astounding, as was their pronunciation.  Bassanio/Portia (an interesting if confusing doubling) recited beautifully.  However, these were English majors and our job was to help them shift from recitation to action.

First of all, they needed to work out what themes they were trying to convey to the audience.  Traditionally in China, Shylock being a Jew is overlooked, as is Othello’s race.  These are issues that are seen as ‘not being relevant’ in Chinese society because of its supposed homogeneity. However, the students felt that Shylock’s religion was important, as was Antonio and Bassanio’s sexuality.

Shylock, played by the group’s only man, was really very good – although perhaps a bit over the top with stage villain facial expressions, he also brought out Shylock’s vulnerability.  Antonio was a matey chap, what my Nanjing colleague Zhang Ying described as xxxx.  This is a man who will do anything for his friend, but without any sense of sexual feelings.  Bassanio, however, seemed strongly moved when he shared Antonio’s ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad’, leading to questions about who was in love with whom. The students were encouraged that, if they wanted to do a homoerotic reading, which they were adamant they did, then they needed to work on the subtleties of this relationship.

Bassanio later had to play Portia, in a double travesti role (a girl playing a boy playing a girl).  How could she make her male Bassanio different from her male impersonator Portia? How could the audience know that she was doubling as another character, her former character’s fiancée?

I noticed that the students repeated a triangular formation and apart from Shylock were extremely reserved in their acting.  At first i wondered whether this was the difference between the physicality of Western acting and the internalisation of Eastern acting that Prof He Chengzhou remarked on to his students after I gave them a lecture.  However, on reflection, I think that the latter, at least, was probably nerves!

What really impressed me, apart from the high standard, was that four students were prepared to put hours of work into this project, their eagerness to engage with non-traditional interpretations, and their attention to detail in both speech and thought.

Good luck NanDa! I hope you get through to the finals in Hong Kong in the summer.

Amateur Operatics, Beijing Style

Beijing Opera Club, Beijing, 4th December 2011

It was cold and dull in Beijing, winter closing in.  I was wandering down the road with my friends Zhou Yan and Christine, when Zhou Yan suddenly stopped and ran over to the doorway of an old grey brick building, once typical of the city.  ‘I think its Beijing Opera,’ she said, sticking her head through the doorway into the gloom beyond. Christine disagreed.  ‘I think this is a music venue, but for rock bands,’ she said, but Zhou Yan was certain, and tapped a hand-written paper poster pasted to the door.  We went in, and when our eyes got used to the dark we saw a group of old men.  One of them offered us tickets – it was a piao you, a ticket house, for a Jingju Beijing Opera Club that met every Sunday afternoon, although judging from the posters and the inappropriate graffiti I could see that Christine was also right.

For a ten yuan ticket we would get bitter tea and strange music.

Although the venue was clearly designed for a young, urban clientele, with a bar at the back, battered sofas along one side and high tables and bar stools, it was nonetheless still reminiscent of the Lao She Teahouse, with more expensive tables in the pit in front of the stage, and tables and chairs set out in straight lines on the higher, cheaper platform behind the sound system.

The audience was mostly laoren, old men, of course, dressed in grey overcoats and flat caps, drinking tea, eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells on the floor.  Everyone talking, sleeping, listening… Christine and I were the  only laowai, foreigners.

‘Crikey, it’s like a hard-core folk club,’ whispered Christine, glancing to the front where a small orchestra (Chinese gong, erhu, wooden clappers etc) sat  hunched on the right hand side of the stage, bundled up in coats.  What I think was a sanxian (三弦) player sat apart in the centre, towards the back, with the long-necked lute, and the singers stood to the right.  The vocal performers were mostly men, ranging in age from early thirties to eighties, and they wore their everyday clothes.  Someone sang the dan, the heroine’s role.  Simultaneously he was a beautiful young woman and a not-so-beautiful young man.  The role was contained in his voice and in the slight movement of one hand.  I felt like Brecht watching Mei Lanfang.

Brecht’s experience of seeing Mei perform helped him to formulate his Verfremdungseffekt (alienation/defamiliarization effect), in which a performer both inhabits and critically stands outside his/her role.   I see where Brecht is coming from, although I believe he only partially understood what happens in jingju performance.* Li Ruru, in her book The Soul of Beijing Opera, describes Jingju as ‘the art of conventionalization’ (2010: 30).

Another man plays the chou, the clown.  Zhou Yan asked me, ‘Do you remember what chou means?’  I grasp about in my memory.  ‘Ugly?’ I offer.  ‘And also clumsy,’ she says, ‘ but a clown isn’t clumsy [in Chinese culture], he’s clever and sharp.  So you see the role name plays with opposites.’ [check word!], a female role, combines the words ‘black clothing’ with [check word], making it bright and coloured, thus the role of the young woman.

The chou was an old man and the only performer to wear a costume, a red skullcap.  His facial expressions and actions spoke to us even if we couldn’t understand his words.  Sometimes he pulled the grotesque face of a monkey or the put on the posture of a silent movie villain.  Of course, he may have been neither: I can’t read the codes.  I tried to work out his song. I thought it was about bags of gold and beating somebody – but perhaps that was just because he reminded me of Ali Baba.  Who knows?

Li Ruru notes that jingju is not an ancient form at all.  In fact, it emerged only a few decades before modern, spoken theatre.  Jingju is a combination of traditional regional forms from all over China, united and transformed in the capital city to appeal to the wide range of traders, migrants and refugees it found in its audiences:

The dance and song in our indigenous theatre were not invented by theatre itself.  We borrowed one tile from one neighbour and took a log from another.  Our theatrical form was created like a piece of scissors-and-paste work. (Cheng Yanqiu, 1951 in Li, 2010: 20)

In stylizing Jingju’s language so that it would be comprehensible to as many dialects as possible it necessarily became incomprehensible, so spoken commentary would be added between the arias so that the audience could catch the meaning.

Next on our programme, a middle-aged man was an old woman.  She was lamenting her son, who turned out to be a traitor.  Then a man in a padded white silk jacket (was he in mourning?) was a judge dispensing justice for a woman whose husband married her for her money and position, only to then try to kill her.  Another man then sang the wife.

Zhou Yan mused, ‘In China, the judge is most important to the people –  that justice  is seen to be done is more important than law or democracy.  The judge must use his wisdom to make sure that a bad person doesn’t go unpunished because of a bad law, or because of who he is…’

A casually dressed, but sophisticated, middle-aged man came over to me and introduced himself. He spoke perfect English.  Prof Meng, and English lecturer turned businessman, said, ‘We’re all jingju fans here.  We come every Sunday afternoon.  Some of us perform – I also enjoy to perform, although I’m not singing today.  For me, this is better than karaoke.  We all have our roles which we specialize in – old man, young woman, general – like the professionals do.’

We talked for awhile of the 1993 Chen Kaige film Farewell to my Concubine (霸王别姬), about two boys who grow up to be a dan and a general.  In this film, Beijing Opera becomes the backdrop against  which all the sufferings and some of the joys of modern China are played out:

‘After our amateur performances,’ Meng continued, ‘we have some specially invited professionals perform for us, too.’

The professionals included the only female singer of the afternoon (although the compere and a couple of the musicians were women).

‘In Old China,’ said Meng, ‘women weren’t allowed to perform on the stage.  Is that strange to you in England?’

‘Not so strange,’ I replied. ‘In Shakespeare’s day it was the same.’

The professional was young and smart. First, she sang a young heroine’s part, then she lowered her voice and quickened her tempo, becoming old and feisty. Again, she had one hand held up under her rib-cage, fluttering.  She was followed by a male ‘star’.  This was obvious from the way he took off his sweater like a sportsman, and the rapturous applause this resulted in! He dominated the stage, and his voice dominated the venue.

He got more ‘flowers’ than the woman, ‘flowers’ worth over 1000 yuan. The flowers are just symbolic, of course, sent by the audience to show their appreciation.  The money is real enough, however.  ‘Half goes to the performer and half to the club,’ Prof Meng explained. Then, ‘Do you like this music, or are you just interested because it’s different?’

‘Yes, yes I do.’ (Christine didn’t, and made her excuses to leave. ‘It’s a long way back…’)

But I really do, I thought, although I can’t understand a word and can’t read the codes.  Perhaps it’s because I associate it with my first time in China, and seeing Chen Kaige’s film at the little cinema at the end of the street, packed full of locals, all interacting with what they saw on the screen – their recently lived history.  Perhaps I associate it with Zhang Guorong’s bewitching performance as the dan, his make-up and costume making his transformation into the tragic Concubine Yu complete.  Or perhaps it’s the music itself:  the instruments together with that strange voice, the rat-tat-tat of the clappers, the dengdengdengdengdeng of the gong, the catwail of the erhu and the dancing pipar.

It’s a cacophony, but a thrilling one.  I actually get a physical thrill when I hear it – and no moreso than when I was sitting in that Beijing Opera club for locals.

(Pictures to be uploaded)

*Brecht’s partial understanding of Chinese theatre is discussed in detail by Min Tian in his article ‘”Alienation-Effect” for Whom? Brecht’s (Mis)interpretation of the Classical Chinese Theatre’ in the Asian Theatre Journal Vol. 14, No. 2 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 200-222, in which he emphasizes Brecht’s determination to fit Mei’s performance to his already formulated ideas, his Orientalist readings of Chinese performance, and the fact that Mei Lanfang was giving an exemplary performance, in which he was demonstrating codes out of context and out of costume. Something that watching this performance made me think about is the difference between a concert recital and a play/opera performance, be it Mei Lanfang or Pavarotti. When Pavarotti was a man singing in a bow-tie, was his performance fundamentally different to when he was a man singing in a Renaissance costume?