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.

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