Zhuli Xiaojie: interculturating Strindberg into Beijing Opera

Zhuli Xiaojie (Miss Julie) Beijing Opera, New Place, Shanghai Theatre Academy, 10th January, 2012.

Strindberg’s play reconfigured into pre-modern (pre-revolutionary?) China, jingju. Chinese names of characters: Zhuli = Julie, Xiang Qiang = Jean, Gui Sidi = Kristin. Performance description to be posted later.

Miss Julie (c) Shanghai Theatre Academy

Miss Julie (c) Shanghai Theatre Academy

Post-performance discussion:

Audience: What role type is Jean?

William Huizhu Sun (Playwright): The character is more layered than traditional Beijing Opera roles.  We had to mix role types to create this role, so we included the old man type as well as the martial hero.  You’ll have noticed that we even used some clown.

Audience:  You made the Kristin (Christine) character a clown archetype.  Why did you do this and how did this choice influence the role?

Guo Yu (Producer): We wanted to add a different variety to the expressiveness of this role, and to add to the humour.  Making her a clown type gave us lots of possibilities.  In traditional, indigenous Chinese theatre, we have an aesthetic associated with a man playing a woman as a clown, and it can include a type of beauty through this element.  This type of character fits into both indigenous theatre and also into the role of Christine. By contrast, the role type of Jean is not found in traditional Beijing Opera., especially the conniving going on in his own spiritual place.  This led to us having to create a new kind of role.  Miss Julie is the traditional dignified female, but we had to add an element of hua dan, so although she is a dignified female and not a young female role, she does have an extra exuberance, and vibrance.

Richard Schechner (Honorary Professor):  First my comment – this was a really excellent production.  But my question is this: as you know, Strindberg’s play is all about class.  It has four strong characters in it – Miss Julie, Jean, Christine and also the Master, whose boots are present even if he isn’t, and we hear his boots at the end.  Jean hands Miss Julie the razor, and then goes back to serve him.  However, you changed the ending.  So what I want to know is, why did you choose to have a sentimental ending, with Jean and Christine’s marriage, which emphasised Miss Julie’s death instead?  Ending like this, the class thing drops out.

Sun: Let me ask the audience – how many of you agree that the ending was sentimental?  I don’t think the ending is sentimental at all.  What we did was change the role of Christine.  She is much larger.  She has done many things to sabotage the romance between Jean and Miss Julie throughout – for example sending in the bird several times.  Likewise, we don’t see the Master.  Who is to say that the Master really came? We only have Christine’s word for it.  Also, we don’t see how Miss Julie kills herself.  This is ambiguous.  There is no razor.  In Beijing Opera perhaps she should hand herself, but we see no rope.  Instead, Christine and Jean drop the red ribbon [from their marriage ceremony] on her.  So actually, the two members of the proletariat kill her!  The proletarian wins, the aristocrat dies.  In China, red very clearly signals a wedding, and also perhaps blood. [and revolution?]

STA Miss Julie (c) Junhua Fang

STA Miss Julie (c) Junhua Fang

Audience: Yes… but when I see somebody bend over all the way backwards like that and turn and fall to the floor in a Beijing opera, then I see a kind of agency.

Sun: Yes, but the death is like in that play by Wole Soyinka [xxx].  The person who wants to die just follows the ritual.  By the way, in my adaptation I just ended with the words [about following the bird].  It was the director who added the action after all the words ended.

Schechner: And you changed the last line – you made Miss Julie want to die!

Sun: But when does she die? Maybe she is just dying.  Maybe at the end they finally kill her.  You know, this ritual exercise can really take too long! (laugh)

Audience: To me the ending is clear.  The music continues and the lights are on until they drop the scarf.

Audience: What was the director’s intention with this ending?

(Zhao Qun (Director):  I was going for that contrast, like the last person said.  There are two characters in a wedding ceremony, but we still have this small grave of the bird there and Miss Julie.

Audience: It is a pretty clear sign with the red scarf – it’s marriage and the winning of the proletariat.  If it was the sentimental ending that Richard Schechner said, it would be white.

Audience: Yes, she’s following her own path, but it’s a path that’s been laid out for her from the killing of the bird.

Audience: Miss Julie, were you already dead or were you killed?

Liu Lu (Miss Julie): For the ending – well, I only had two days to prepare… (spontaneous and awed applause!)  Maybe I just forgot about the bird in my heart.  I think my heart is dead, it’s broken, because there is no use for life on this earth.  But maybe your suggestions are right.  After all, this play is just our ‘try’.  We can make improvements according to your ideas.

Audience: My question is about Jean.  I the scene where he puts on the robe and the sunglasses, and then sings the western song [the ‘cornetto’ tune – which opera?] , this is a clear departure from jingju so why did you make this choice?

Zhao (Director): Actually, it was an improvisation from the actor – perhaps he did it for the foreigners in the audience.  There is a lightness in the way the actors are interpreting this.  In an earlier performance, he sang a well-known Beijing opera song, but when we took it to Poland we felt this wouldn’t convey to the audience the feeling of this scene.  Also, we hoped it would appeal to the fans of western operas.

Audience: so is this a reform of traditional theatre?

Guo (Producer): Actually, there is a practice where performers sing different songs to fit different audiences.  For example, they will sing regional songs depending on the area they are performing in.  This is an experimental production, so we are developing this idea.  Here at STA, our traditional theatre school is based on teaching traditional techniques, but we pride ourselves o introducing ideas and characters from Western theatre.

Lui (Miss Julie): We can create new drama types.  But I don’t think this is a good idea for little children, for beginners of the traditional opera from.  It is for when you reach a higher level.

Qin Hao (Jean): Yes, in our case we’ve already studied for more than ten years, so we already have the foundation, so it’s okay for us to take on experimental productions, role types etc.  I really like the way I have very different experiences when I perform for different types of audiences.

Audience:  I’m really interested in this discussion about intercultural dramaturgy – what reads in the East and what reads in the West.  What I want to know is, do you think that this type of production would upset the purists?

Zhao (Director): No, I think it would appeal, because, for example, Miss Julie’s character has kept her long singing sections.  However, we also hope we can appeal to audiences new to jingju.

Audience: I’m a directing student and I’ve never read Strindberg’s play but..

Sun: You’ve never read this play? Really? What year are you in?

Audience: Sorry, really, no, I’ve never read it, and I didn’t get the sense that it was foreign.  I mean, it seemed that the structure of a western story may be there, but what I was appreciating was  traditional opera.

Sun:  What we want to hear most is all these different interpretations.  Strindberg himself offered about fifteen different interpretations of Miss Julie’s death in his introduction.  We should thank Strindberg for all these interpretations!

Obviously, some of our interpretations are culturally specific, and I think if it wasn’t so late, and if we weren’t tired, we could come up with another fifteen!

Richard Schechner in China 2012

Winter Institute, Shanghai Theatre Academy: 10th January, 2012, Shanghai

Discussion in street:

Schechner: Horatio isn’t just Hamlet’s lover, he’s the storyteller, he’s Shakespeare.  So they’re lovers, but also the creator and the created.  That’s why Horatio has to be present at everything.  But this isn’t apparent until the final lines.

The production in Romania was almost the same as the earlier production.  Benjamin Mosse made just one small change – which I approved of.  He changed the fight at the end, replacing the swords we used in the original production with the mops.  I think this was an improvement.

Discussion in office:

David Peng, Schechner Performance Centre: The main idea of the production was Schechner’s.  Was it collaborative? Well, there were small innovations from the cast, but actually they worked really hard to work with him.

Discussion in workshop:

Prof Gong, Vice President of STA introducing Richard: Richard Schechner is one of only three honourable professors of our academy, and it really is an honour to the academy.  STA is the only university in China that has a performance studies research centre accepted by NYU.  Richard’s achievement in art creation is well-known in our academy, and Richard’s academic and artistic creation is included in our teaching programme and our research programme. Another important project from 2006/7 is our publication of TDR China.  We have held Rasa Box workshops several times at STA.  They made such a big success that many students want to experience Rasa Boxes.  Richard is very strict on numbers, so we have had to divide into groups and we’ve invited Paula Marie Cole of Ithaca College, US, to lead one.  Paula teaches acting for realistic, physical and musical theatre and has worked with Richard for over twenty years.

Richard Schechner: What I say you must do.  You are free to leave but you must do as I say if you are here.  If it is too hard for you, sit down.  But if you sit down too often or for too long I will ask you to leave.

Paula: I want to create a safe space for you.


Paula Cole, on Rasa Boxes, to the Chinese students:  There are eight basic rasas, and then the ninth, shanta, or peace, was added later when the Buddhists came.

A Winter’s Tale: The Mirror of Fortune, a Beijing Opera, performed 6th December, 2012, Shanghai.

(Production details to be added – programme in Chinese)

Over the years, I’ve seen many jingju extracts, at the Lao She Teahouse, in tourist shows, on television, at a piao you, and under the trees on Thousand Buddha Mountain during the May Day holiday.  I’ve never seen a live performance of a full-length opera though, so when the opportunity came up to see a local performance whilst attending the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s Winter Institute 2012, I eagerly took it.  The opera, The Mirror of Fortune, follows the fate of Lady XXX, whose fourteen month pregnancy is so long that her husband’s concubine convinces her master that his wife is bearing a monster and hatches a plot to poison her mistress.  Lady XXX’s plucky and loyal maid overhears this plan and helps her mistress escape into the mountains, where the lady gives birth to a beautiful boy-child.  While the maid is away looking for food, an evil local landlord (?) passes by, abducts Lady XXX to be his concubine, and discards her baby at the side of the road.  His wife is having no such nonsense, however, comically chastises her husband, pays off Lady XXX and lets her go.  Lady XXX is happily reunited with her maid, who has returned with food, until both realises that neither has the baby.  After a desperate and futile search, Lady XXX falls into a state of madness. Meanwhile, her baby boy has been saved by a passing general (judge?), who takes him home.  After some time, Lady XXX’s maid brings her mistress to his house for shelter, they all realise that this is the mother of the lost child (?), so the general gives the maid money for the treatment of her mistress, and offers to raise the baby as his son. Seventeen years pass.  The baby is now a young man.  The maid brings her mistress to the court to claim justice, Lady XXX is reunited with her son, thanks to a piece of identifying jewellery, and the plot of the evil concubine is exposed.  Lady XXX’s husband is unduped, and it all ends happily.

Beijing Opera is highly codified and anti-realist.  For me as a British viewer, the comparison is with Christmas pantomime.  This is partly because of Chinois Aladdin, of course, but also because of jingju’s clown characters, the cross-dressed ‘dame’, the direct audience address, and the spectacle.  Jingju, although now an acquired taste, was for many years popular entertainment. However, it is powerful entertainment, combining comedy with threat, and even the suggestion of potential tragedy.  The mad grief of Lady XXX was particularly emotionally effecting in this contect.  This play, in particular, also has parallels with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and despite elements which Brecht (mis?)identified as V-effects, it draws in the audience emotionally, particularly if you are familiarised with these techniques.  The high-pitched voices of the young female characters no longer make me laugh – they simply indicate their gender and project across a noisy room.  (Chinese jingju audiences do not sit quietly.) An old woman speaks and sings in a more natural voice.  It is interesting to note, however, that these ‘feminine’ traits were developed by male performers before women were accepted on the professional stage.  Because jingju audiences are so familiar with the stories and the styles of the shows, there seems to be a collaborative contract between them and the performers.  When the lead dan steps on stage, she is applauded before she has done anything, in anticipation of her performance.  When she begins, for example, a well-known step to introduce a dance or song, she is again applauded.  If she does it well, there will be shouts and cheers. At the end of the show, the audience cluster around the stage, shouting out approval.

The set comprised of a variety of boxes, or sometimes a table an two chairs, covered in different coloured silks and usually arranged centrally.  In the opening and ending scenes there was also a decorative screen – perhaps a later innovation? A pale blue cotton curtain was also drawn across the stage to indicate scene changes or the passage of time, perhaps another influence of huaju, spoken theatre.  The theatre was a proscenium arch.  However, sense of place was mostly indicated by props and actions.  The maid was obviously in the house when she came in carrying a cup on a tray.  She was outside when she carried a small bag, and her mistress wore a scarf over her elaborate headdress.  Lost on the mountainside, the hardship and danger of the women’s journey was conveyed to the audience by the way they mimed crossing a river on imaginary stepping stones.

Jingju, although translated as Beijing Opera, is not opera in the Western sense.  Li Ruru had described it more accurately as ‘total theatre’, I think, or perhaps we can think of a musical. Characters speak through recitation, but expand on emotions or situations through songs, which are known in their own right outside of the opera performance.  Thus, my friend Zhou Yan, who has not seen a full-length opera, can tell me the meanings of the songs at a piao you, and their contexts. [Zhou Yan is highly educated, an intellectual, but theatre going is alien to her.  After we attended LZH’s The Master Builder, she told me that the last time she went to the theatre she was about three or four.  ‘I can’t remember the play, but it was the end of the Cultural Revolution.  I remember that the theatre company borrowed our chairs for the production.  I was so excited to see our wooden chairs on the stage!  We lived in the North East, and many locals were not Han.  I’m not sure if many people went to the theatre in those days.  We didn’t have televisions, so maybe.  Were we a typical family? I don’t know.  I suppose my father must have been friends with the actors, otherwise why would we have leant them our chairs?  Perhaps that’s why we went.’] Dancing and acrobatics (or a combination of the two) are also integral.

Costume also indicate role.  A handkerchief is female, although a man can be male. Thus the ‘dame’ character, the landlord’s wife, played by a middle-aged man, clutched hers as did the evil concubine. The good judge (general) had a grey beard early in the performance, but after the seventeen years had passed, he changed it to a white one (some things are universal!)  The doll-baby’s cry was played by a reed pipe (a Biba?), and his youth was later indicated by the way the male actor kept changing, mid sentence, from a woman’s voice to a man’s (jokes about voices breaking also cross continents!).  When Lady XXX lost her mind, she lost her headdress, her hair became loosened, and her posture collapsed, like a puppet whose master has let go of the strings.  At the moment she realised her loss, the stage fell totally silent – the orchestra stopped, she sang, but soundlessly, and mimed out her words as if signing.

The dan, Lady XXX was clearly the central role in this opera, and the relationship between her and her maid was phenomenal in terms of performance.  As Lady XXX danced her madness, each movement was complimented by a reaction from the maid, in a complex choreography that conveyed Lady XXX emotional isolation, the maid’s determined companionship and care.

As in the Taiwan Banzi demonstration (BSA conference, London, 2009) the long sleeves of Lady XXX’s costume took on animated dimensions as they became an extension of her state of mind, whirled about as if in a gymnastic ribbon dance.


Hamlet: Beautiful Desire, Shanghai Theatre Academy final year production, 5th January 2012.

(Production details to be added – no programme was available)

‘Did you like it?’ several Shanghai Theatre Academy lecturers asked me, doubtfully.  ‘Yes,’ I said, half truthfully. This final year student production was energetic and fun, with a strong emphasis on sex, violence and grotesque comedy.  Its influences were clearly those of popular culture, I suspect it was derivative, and it lacked great intellectual or emotional depth, but I think that for students of theatre it was an interesting project in post-modern deconstruction.  Style over substance – but maybe that was its substance.

The director had trained in St Petersburg, and it had the aura of a continental European production.  It looked great.  There was a split stage, with the upper room, Claudius’ office, presented to the audience as a lighted box through a glass wall, which gave the impression of a cinema screen.  In this room Gertrude and Claudius snogged, Ophelia began her mental collapse, and Hamlet, bound and gagged as if in a gangster’s den, still defied his uncle/step-father. Below, a giant cross (often used in Chinese theatre to indicate the European setting) sat at the head of an open grave, which was a pit filled with water, apparently foreshadowing Ophelia’s death, although Ophelia’s death never actually happened.  The play within a play was performed on a bouncy castle, which later deflated around Claudius. A deformed clown ran rampant throughout. A doctor’s skeleton hung at the edge of the stage from beginning to end. A stuffed armadillo represented the ghost.

Barmy, or what.

The final act took place in less than five minutes in a crazy précis, fast-forwarded as if time had run out, with Laertes, a bit of a psycho throughout, killing everyone.  Ophelia, annoyingly infantalised and sexualised, never got to throw herself in the grave, but sat at the edge and watched as Hamlet and Laertes fought.  At the end, the bodies rose zombie-like from the stage for the curtain call.

I was interested in the echoes from Lin Zhaohua’s production, which has become a seminal text in Chinese theatre studies.  Everyone knows that ‘everyone is Hamlet’. The echoes were:

Gertrude’s red velvet dress, almost an exact copy of the Hamlet 1990 revival, and the white fur stole and gloves also combined to signify marriage and death through her clothing.

Claudius spoke Hamlet’s words, in Chinese it sounded like, si le, shui jiao, to die to sleep.