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!

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