Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

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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.

The Lonely Man

 

On Tuesday 6th July, I met with my Chinese partner, Xu Yuang, who has been helping me find articles in Chinese on Lin Zhaohua, as information in English is very limited.  In particular, I wanted to know about Lin’s background because, as with anyone of his generation, this is fundamental to understanding his or her work, particularly work of the eighties and early nineties.  The word ‘background’ in this context is politically loaded, of course.  Somebody’s class background in pre-Deng Communist China defined everything about them.  For example, Zhang Yimou, Chinese cinema’s internationally recognised auteur and mastermind of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, had the ‘wrong’ class background.  His father had been in the Nationalist army during the civil war before Liberation, making Zhang the son of a counter-revolutionary. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’, which had nothing to do with education in its traditional sense; in fact, it meant the opposite, and thousands of young would-be scholars and artists spent years as farm labourers instead… Chen Kaige, another Fifth Generation film director, became a Red Guard and persecuted his own father.  His film Farewell My Concubine was seen by many as his attempt at atonement.

What was Lin’s experience?  Now in his 70s, he will have lived through most of the tumultuous events of 20C China: Japanese occupation, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the Communist Liberation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Open Door Policy.  But how was he positioned within these?  Unfortunately, the information is scarce, even in Chinese: ‘It is difficult to find the complete Lin Zhaohua story, because he refuses to speak about it, or to give many interpretations for his work.  He often refuses to answer questions,’ said Xu.  ‘If you are lucky, he will be dead before you finish your PhD!’

Some of Xu’s investigations matched mine, but her own commentary on the facts gave it extra meaning.  She spread out her notes and references before me, indicating the characters, picking out for me key phrases.  I felt a little bit like Lin Shu, who translated his works of Shakespeare without reading English…

Lin Zhaohua was born in Tianjin, an important cultural and trade city not far from Beijing. (My family and I visited Tianjin in 2002.  It was winter, and it was so cold that the river had frozen solid.  Old men sat over little holes they had drilled in the ice, fishing.  We ate the famous ‘Dogs Wouldn’t Eat Them’ steamed buns  – well, the inauthentic vegetarian version – and wondered through the city’s traditional markets, recalling the short stories of Feng Jicai, one of just many of the Tianjin’s famous writers and artists.)

‘It says here that Lin Zhaohua is working class,’ said Xu.  ‘This is important, as it means that he is politically clean in these times [Mao’s era], and here it says that before he studied he worked in a very famous film production company as a recordist.’ The film company was called Ba Yi, literally Eight One. ‘You see, at that time everything has some political meaning.  These two numbers reference 1st August, the date of the birthday of the Communist Party.’ Later, Lin passed the examination to enter the Central Drama Academy (zhāng yāng xi ju xue yuan), where he studied directing, and he graduated in 1961. ‘After graduation, he was allocated to Ren Yi, which means ‘People’s Art’ – you weren’t free to choose your own jobs, you were just sent somewhere and told what to do.’ Ren Yi, or the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT), used him initially as a bit-part actor.  Again, Xu paused to point out a pair of Chinese characters, long tao.  ‘This is the Chinese term for a walk-on part: it means dragon cover, because the actor is just covered by the costume [like the dragon costume in the dragon dance] and has nothing to say!  For so many years, Lin Zhaohua is only allowed to be long tao… I think this must be because even when he was young he was too rebellious.  You know, he often says in interviews that he wants to be an “agent of change”, but in the Cultural Revolution he could have only been allowed to  walk-on in approved political dramas!  Can you imagine how he must feel then?’

Like me, Xu had also found an article looking at his role in pioneering the Little Theatre Movement in China in the eighties, after the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four, as the Party began to loosen its grip on society and culture. Lin Zhaohua was finally allowed to begin directing, twenty years after he graduated.  His first play was Jue Dui Xing Hao in 1982. I think this is the play I read about and commented on in my conference paper, called Warning Signal in English, about the plight of unemployed youth in the emerging market economy. ‘Warning Signal […] grapples with social problems, but differs sharply from [other contemporary huaju] in that it offers no solutions […] This is a new departure in contemporary Chinese spoken drama […] quite startling for its originality and daring in the Chinese context,’ wrote Mackerras (1984:159).   ‘Little Theatre, xiao ju chang in Chinese, are small dramas, with a small audience: these can be against the common people’s taste, and also against the government,’ continued Xu.  ‘Lin Zhaohua, even though he admits he makes commercial theatre, it seems he really hates commercialism.  Look, here I found some information on his favourite foods, tomato and cucumber.  This is the food of a man who lives simply.’

When we moved onto his approach to theatre, he appears not to be so simple, however. ‘This is very difficult to translate!’ laughed Xu.  Lin Zhaohua mostly adapts classic, often foreign texts, such as those by Chekov or Shakespeare.  ‘Here he says that strictly speaking there is no Chinese drama other than traditional forms such as Beijing Opera, so that is why he uses adapatation: as a framework to express his own ideas.  He manipulates the stories and characters in order to create a new Chinese drama.’  In another place he comments that ‘Today I do Shakespeare, but I do not exactly serve him.’ When performing classic dramas, he says you must ‘Indulge in it, but at the same time you are an observer, not totally in it, an outsider.’  He asks his actors ‘do not totally be in the character, but keep their own identity.’ In traditional Chinese drama, actors are trained to play specific roles, ‘but he wants his actors to be like those performers who can change their roles – change their identities.’ However, if people ask him to interpret his plays, ‘he just tells the interviewers to go away and think for themselves.  You can tell by reading the articles that he is a difficult man to talk to,’ said Xu. ‘The interviewers must feel very frustrated, but he is also the most important innovator in the theatre in China.’ She paused, screwing her face up at a page of characters.  ‘I really feel the interviewers are having a hard time to understand him – he is not intelligible.  He doesn’t try to be intelligible,’ said Xu.  ‘I think he is a man who enjoys being lonely.’

(With My) Back to the Wall

To return to my previous entry, ‘Poster Boy Hamlet’: after the poster competition, Jane Moody asked us if we would come early to the Berwick Saul Building opening event, as our posters were going to be displayed in the lobby.  Would we mind standing next to our entries and introducing them to the guests? As a first year PhD student, this was, of course, a little nerve-wracking.  What if somebody asked me a theory-laden question that I only half understood?  What if I was challenged about my methodology? What if my poster sparked interest, but my answer lost it?  Of course, this was doubtless why Jane was offering us this opportunity: to encourage us to think about how we conveyed our research in an attention-grabbing way, and to build our confidence in answering just these sort of questions.  So, to practise, I asked my co-winner to introduce her poster on forensic linguistics.  It was fascinating.  I had never thought about how the police decided whether or not somebody was making a hoax call! I then introduced mine to her, and she expressed equal surprise that Shakespeare was performed in East Asia.  It was all going very well, until a friendly history lecturer came over and began to quiz me on my work.  She initially seemed interested and continued to smile politely, despite the fact that I don’t think she had wanted a ten minute monologue.  I remembered too late Judith Buchanan’s advice: sum up your research in three punchy sentences!  The history lecturer must have been relieved when, suddenly, a young Chinese man was at our side.

‘一千个人眼里有一千个哈姆雷特, yi qian ge ran yanli you yi qian ge hamuleite: Inside one thousand people are one thousand Hamlets… Hahaha! How do you know this saying?’ he said.

‘My Chinese tutor taught me it,’ I began.  He peered more closely at my poster.

‘Ah, this is very interesting, this poster…’

Oh no.

‘Are you from Mainland China, by any chance?’ I asked quickly. I somehow sensed that ‘interesting’ was a euphemism.

‘Yes,’ he said.  Darn it, I knew I shouldn’t have added the reference to Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese boy, a computing major who had come to the opening with his friend, began to read out loud: ‘What was this production saying about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms or his clampdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement?’

I’m not sure if he then said this, or whether I just saw it written across his face: ‘Why can’t  you foreigners mention China without mentioning the Tiananmen Incident?’  And I knew what he was feeling.  My Chinese students in York had felt under constant pressure during the Olympics.  ‘Why nobody talking about  good things in our country?’ they frequently protested.  ‘You Westerners always talking about China and human rights, China and Tibet.  But Tiananmen was years ago.  We were babies.  What about Guantanamo?’

‘What’s this colour?’ the Chinese student said, jabbing his finger at the text boxes. The history lecturer politely left.

‘It’s red.  It’s influenced by the New Year red paper couplets,’ I began to explain.

‘It’s not red, it’s pink,’ he contradicted.  He was smiling, but he reminded me of one of my students in Jinan many years ago, the ardent young communist Tiger John.  Tiger John had picked up my latest edition Lonely Planet Guide (1993) and shaken it in my face.  ‘Why they put this picture on the cover,’ he demanded, tears pricking his eyes.  It was a photograph of an old man, in neat but patched clothes, guarding a bicycle parking lot.  ‘Always, you Westerners wanting to say we are poor; wanting to say we are bad place.’

‘Have you been in China?’ the Chinese computer major asked, bringing me back to the present, a crowded building in York, where waiters were circulating with wine and canapés.

‘Yes, I lived in your country for several years.  I love it – and respect it.’

‘Maybe if you write this, and you want to come to China again, you won’t get a visa!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha!’

‘Ha…’ I said. ‘I think China is a good place.  And I think Deng Xiaoping was a great and an important leader.  I know that many of my Chinese friends say that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms transformed their lives.  He made many people’s lives better.  I know that.’

‘Maybe if you do go back to teach in China again, and you say this,’ he continued to jab my poster, ‘you will be deported!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha! Maybe the People’s Daily headline will say, Foreign Expert Sent Home! Only joking!’

I half-wish I hadn’t put the word Tiananmen on that poster.  How, in a couple of hundred words, could I get across the complexity of contemporary Chinese history?  Lin Zhaohua struggled, and he had the vehicle of Hamlet to convey it.  How was I so insensitive not to realise that if I added it, although it might spark the interest of a Western academic, or even a Chinese academic, it was bound to wound a young Chinese boy?

(c) Saffron Walkling


Poster boy Hamlet

(c) SSCAC Pu Cunxin in Lin's Hamuleite revivival

Somehow, I forgot to mention Jane Moody’s Academic Poster competition, which I managed to win, despite my rudimentary IT skills!

Last October, the University of York opened its new Berwick Saul Building which houses the Humanities Research Centre and our post-graduate study space.   As part of the opening celebrations, current post-graduates were asked to enter a competition to produce a poster setting out their research in a visually stimulating and easily accessible way.  The posters would be displayed during the opening reception, and, more importantly perhaps, the winners would get a cash prize…

After chatting with some younger, more computer savvy students, I downloaded myself a copy of the Corel Poster making guide, and set to work.  Unfortunately, I could make neither head nor tail of this extremely long document, and as I only had one morning in which I could spare any time  for the visual side of this project, I decided to go back to basics and draft my ideas onto a Word document.  I knew that I wanted to make a link between Lin Zhaohua’s Hamuleite and the Tiananmen Incident – after all, how could any production based on Hamlet that was first put on at the end of 1989 not be making some link?  This led to me coming up with the title ‘Hamlet and the Chinese Democracy Wall.’   Once I had the title, everything else fell into place.  The Democracy Wall was the name given to a wall of posters at Beijing University, put up by students pushing for campus reform.  From this grew the crowds in Tiananmen Square, the Goddess of Democracy statue, the hunger strikes, and the eventual quashing of the demonstration by the government.  Even now, 20 years later, nobody is sure what really happened.  This image of the Democracy Wall would reflect the brief moment that Shakespeare appropriation in the PRC was overtly and domestically political, before it became a product with which to enter the global market (with films such as Feng’s The Banquet).  This is doubly appropriate, as it seems to me that Lin’s production was suggesting that everything in the New China comes second to pragmatism and economic development; many Chinese, including some of the student protestors themselves, would come to conclude that in the long run Deng Xiaoping’s utilitarianism had a more lasting and positive impact than their calls for democracy could have had.  But how was I to reproduce that wall of faded tissue paper ‘posters’ with their bold, hand-inked calligraphy and simple stark messages?  This is where my limited IT skills worked to my advantage.  I started with a long, thin text box down the righthand side of the document, which I blocked in red, then I added in Chinese characters, vertically, the saying I had learnt from my Chinese tutor, that inside one thousand people, there are one thousand different Hamlets.  It looked just like one of the New Year couplets that my Chinese neighbours would hang outside their doors at Spring Festival.  Then I began to add other text boxes: black print on white for my ideas, red text boxes for my quotations.  I added a banner like heading in a script that imitated brushstrokes across the top, and a single image from Lin’s production dominating the top half: Hamlet, in the off-white of his mourning, squatting alongside a Beijing ditch, giving his Yorick speech to a plastic skull.  The effect was almost what I had hoped for, but it seemed slightly too new, too hopeful.  I changed my bright crimson to a faded red, suggesting the passage of time, and suddenly there it was, my campus wall of ideas.  I now simply had to transfer and enlarge my text boxes to an A3 Publisher document (this, of course, took me about another hour…!)  I hadn’t used Corel, but I had solidified my ideas, and managed to convey visually my understanding of complex, contradictory Chinese politics. I attached it to an email to Jane Moody, on the off-chance that it might pick-up a runner-up comment and promptly forgot all about it.

Imagine my surprise just before the Christmas break when I got emails from Bill, my supervisor, and Jane telling me I had jointly won first prize, making me £75 richer…

And I have a very nice new digital camera now, too.

Hamlet in White

I knew I had something to return to: the mini-Shakespeare, Peele and Performance Conference at the University of York on November 2nd, and visiting speaker Michael Dobson’s surprised exclamation: ‘Hamlet in white!?!’ He was referring to the moment on his trip to China a few years previously, when he had been shown some pictures of a Chinese Hamlet. Was he talking about my Chinese Hamlet, I wondered? After all, Hamlet (Pu Cunxin) wore black jeans/trousers and an off-white hessian top in Lin’s production. And of course, in a western production Hamlet should have been wearing black – or at least should have according to Shakespeare’s script, although not according to Gertrude. ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,’ she commands or begs in I.II. There are two reasons why I think Lin may have dispensed with this tradition. Firstly, it seemed to me when I watched Lin’s play that Pu’s contemporary western clothing was referencing Olivier’s loose white shirt in his film, which was widely shown in China at communal film-showings (Zhang). It was interesting to hear Judith Buchanan talk about the tradition of Hamletian clothing and editions being literally passed on from actor to actor in her talk at this conference. In this context, Hamlet is being aligned with a cinematic image that represents most of the target audiences initial contact with the play. However, even more significantly, this white shirt in Lin’s production makes sense of the meaning of Gertrude’s words in the local culture: i.e. ‘It is time to stop dressing in mourning for your father, son.’  For white is the colour of death in China, traditionally worn at funerals.

Dennis Kennedy explores this in his chapter on ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare (1993).  He argues that:

‘No visual element can have an absolute or fixed signification, since meaning depends upon shifting cultural perceptions’ (14). Thus, ‘A Hamlet set in contemporary Berlin is a different play than one set in medieval Elsinore or in Elizabethan London, yet all three have some legitimacy and even some Shakespeare authorization. To put it as simply as possible, how Hamlet is dressed reveals as much about the style and intention of  the performance as anything he says, and may well influence a spectator more  than Shakespeare’s poetry’ (15).

Towards a Research Question: Hamlet and Cultural Usurpation.

I am taking the advice of The Craft of Research team and, instead of reading in order to find a question, I am forcing myself to think of a question to guide my reading.  Because I am entering an area so far out of my previous knowledge, I suppose that this question will inevitably change.  To be honest, I am still not really sure what a research question is.  I keep thinking I have one (I have dozens of questions) but they appear to be, at best, textual questions, or at worse, just questions.  What was de Grazia’s research question? ‘Is there a Hamlet if you ignore Hamlet?’?

As I read about Hamlet outside of the Anglo-American tradition, it seems that the play is frequently interpreted as being less about the individual and more about the political context of its audience (Kennedy, 1993).  And Hamlet is once again being interpreted as a political play in Britain, too.  Olivier’s film was the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind, and this was echoed much less successfully by the doomed National Theatre production I saw when I was an undergraduate at UCL (perhaps around 1990). It was the one that Daniel Day Lewis withdrew from after beginning to see the ghost of his father on the stage.  (I’m not sure if that story is true, but it has entered Hamlet legend.)  I was terribly disappointed, firstly because Day Lewis, understandably if he was in the middle of a collapse from nervous exhaustion, was dreadful (he was still best known then for playing Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, a life-changing film for me as a teenager on my ‘80s small-town housing estate in the middle of white, right-wing military Salisbury Plain), but more so because the whole production was so traditional and therefore so predictable. In contrast, I remember being energised, entertained, stimulated and shocked by the Phoenix (?) production from around the same time.  It was directed by Derek Jacobi, I think, and Hamlet was played by Kenneth Branagh.  If I remember rightly, much of the production was quite jolly, with Hamlet and his sidekick Horatio goofing around and satirizing the court at Elsinore.  I even seem to remember that the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene was played as a flirtation between Hamlet and Ophelia, but I might have made this up and redirected this in my imagination!  Either way, the ending was truly chilling, when Fortinbras marched on in 1930s military style clothing and had Horatio escorted off-stage, followed immediately by the sound of rifles being fired, suggesting his summary execution not a gun-salute. It was this sense of Hamlet being about the fate of a whole society rather than that of one man and his immediate family, that came across so strongly to me in Lin’s appropriation. Even from that opening scene of the two gravediggers as urban Beijing workers up to their necks in a muddy ditch there was a no doubt that this was about the here and now, the here being China, the now being the moment of the transformational economic reforms that were about to make it the new Superpower.  For this was a sight familiar along every roadside in the rapidly developing Chinese capital, and any other city, the workmen laying pipes and cables instead of excavating graves, of course.  But for many, this image was not only representative of the birth of a new China, it was also foreshadowing a dying: after all, the construction of high-rises and department stores were burying forever the old hutong courtyard dwellings and the communities that lived in those crowded alleyways where they were located.  (Although one shouldn’t get too sentimental – many of my Chinese friends who get misty-eyed and nostalgic about their childhoods would be the first to admit that they would never leave their centrally-heated modern apartments, with running water and flushing toilets, to return to their foundationless hutongs and the shared public squat toilets at the end of the street.)

So how can I make a compelling research question based on these images and musings?

As I have said previously, what has struck me about Shakespeare/Hamlet in both Chinese and Arab cultures is how they have been linked to modernisation and nationalism, or at least, with the expression of a national identity.  China first started embracing Western ideas and culture after it unexpectedly lost the Sino-Japanese war in the late 19C (Dolby, 1976).  It associated Japan’s sudden rise and military strength with its willingness to embrace the West for its own purposes.  Chinese reformers urged the same, rejecting the centuries old policies of keeping itself culturally and linguistically separate (Bolton, 2000?).  Shakespeare helped shape a brand new genre of drama – huaju or speech drama – that strange foreign concept of having a bunch of actors stand about on stage talking.  This new style was obviously particularly appropriate to address contemporary political events, and Hamlet was particularly conducive to speaking of the Chinese situation – see LaoShe’s prose novel New Hamlet (Huang 2009) and the wartime performance in a Confucian Temple in Sichuan, put on in defiance of the Japanese (Li, 2003 and Huang, 2009). 

It could be that this story resonates so strongly with the Chinese because filial piety is central in Confucian culture (Judy Ick, BSA conference, 2009), but it could also be to do with its themes of usurpation and invasion. Just as these themes spoke to early 20C Chinese anxieties, it is interesting to see how later theatre and film practitioners have returned to this play in time of China’s rise and increasing dominance. To what extent are these outright appropriations, bearing in mind that Shakespeare is seen by Eastern cultures as representative of Western culture, perhaps a type of usurpation or even invasion (and there might be something interesting to say about the decline of Shakespeare studies and performance in the West – although I am not sure how true this is – and its rise in the East.  In thirty years time will the bulk of interest in Shakespeare have relocated to Taiwan, China etc?).  Is this why Chinese artists use the most canonical of Shakespeare’s plays, traditionally the ultimate expression of the Western concept of individualism, as a way to assert a sense of national identity that is fundamentally different?  This play is no longer yours, we have taken it over and made it ours?  These are now not your values, your visionings, your stories, but ours? Is this process completed when a Western audience sees themselves reflected back unrecognisable?

Are these research questions?!