(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.