Shakespeare in China -- he's like one of their own

Does Shakespeare have something particular to say to a Chinese audience? "Measure for Measure" is the latest addition to the ever-expanding Shakespearean repertoire in China.To watch the Chinese production of the play by the People's Art Theater Company at Peking's Capital Theater and to hear the laughter of the audience was to be made acutely aware that

Shakespeare's plays are "not of an age but for all time."

And it would seem that the plays are for all countries, too.

Since the cultural thaw, prompted by the fall of the "gang of four" in 1976, Chinese audiences have been treated to a number of Shakespeare's plays. The English theater company the Old Vic brought its production of "Hamlet" to Peking in 1979. Since then, "Twelfth Night," The Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "Macbeth" have all been successfully produced. "Romeo and Juliet" is being produced for the first time anywhere in the Tibetan language in Shanghai.

The production of Shakespeare's plays in China is important not only because it sheds light on Chinese attitudes to Western thought in drama, but because it acts as an indicator of change within the Chinese theater over the past five years.

The play was first suggested to the People's Art Theater Company by the English director Toby Robertson while the company was touring West Germany with Lao Sheh's play "Teahouse." Impressed by the company's handling of the comedy and the characterization in the Chinese writer's work, Toby Robertson came together with Ying Ruocheng, a leading actor and director in the company, to stage the play. And so far, by playing to almost capacity audiences every night , the play has proved itself to be very good box office.

To many people the choice of a play such as "Measure for Measure" for the Chinese stage might seem strange. It is a complex drama which is at times both obscure and bawdy. The moral, political, and religious aspects of the plot are firmly rooted in a Jacobean context. On the other hand, the subtle questioning of human behavior makes it stand out as a surprisingly modern work. Is the time right for comedy like Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure"?

"Well, first we tried all the comedies," said Ying Ruocheng, the ebullient 51 -year-old codirector and translator of the play. "And making a judgment of audience reaction in the last couple of years, we thought that some comedy was called for. Comedies are more welcome now. During the rehearsals, though, we were slightly worried. We thought we might have chosen the wrong play, that it was too difficult. You see, this is the first time that our theater was attempted any of Shakespeare's plays."

"I certainly do think that Shakespeare has something to say to a Chinese audience," he continued. "I think that few people really realize that China as a country is undergoing modernization. We do have lots of social problems similar to the times of Shakespeare. By this I don't mean that it is the same kind of society, but in a very broad historical sense we are also coming out of a feudal society. The idea that the supreme ruler should disguise himself and go among the people to find things out is an idea that the Chinese accept very readily. There are numerous stories in Peking Opera, for example, on this theme."

Even for English-speaking audiences the language of Shakespeare's plays is not always immediately accessible. The word play, the puns, and the obscure topical jokes are often missed completely. Ying, whose impeccable English reminds one occasionally of the stentorian voice of Richard Burton, is well aware that translation is not just the rendering of one language into another -- it is the interpretation of all the social nuances that lie behind the written word, the puns and the jokes.

He is not particularly happy with his translation of the play, but to may ear his work was a smooth blend of classical and modern colloquial Chinese, and readily accessible to the Chinese audience.

"I think that anyone who does any translation would readily admit that comedy and jokes are among the most difficult to translate well," Ying said. "A correct balance of classical allusions was quite necessary to give one the historical sense of the play. The play shouldn't sound as if it were written today.

"One always wants to do justice to Shakespeare's language, and this is no easy task. There are some very famous passages in this play. The Duke's soliloquy on death: 'Be absolute for death: either death or life/Shall thereby be the sweeter.' And Isabella's speech: 'Could great men thunder. . . .' These are very difficult to translate."

The company had five weeks of rehearsals before opening night. This is considered a relatively short time by Chinese standards. The rehearsals also included lectures and films on Shakespeare's work to give the company a chance to get used to his work. But tugging a 17th-century English play onto the 20 th-century Chinese stage is no easy matter.

In classical Chinese theater acting is a formal, stylized affair, with movements and gestures that are alien to Western theater. And although Western plays have been performed on the Chiese stage for over 80 years, there is still a tendency among Chinese actors in Western roles to appear merely as caricatures in the Western eye.

"We used very little makeup," Ying said, "because we didn't want the actors to look like caricatures of foreigners. We didn't want people to put putty on their noses or dye their hair blond. Chinese actors have a feeling that they ought to be acting like foreigners. They pick up some very cheap foreign gestures -- shrugging, for example. You know, the Chinese just don't shrug very much."

Bawdy comedy or kissing on stage would raise few eyebrows in the West, but in China anything that smacks of sexual expression is frowned upon. In a recent production of "The Merchant of Venice" in Peking, a kissing scene almost caused a scandal. If Shakespeare's comedies are to pork well, then any bawdiness must be given free rein to develop. Within the confines of the stark castle set, designed by Englishman Alan Barrett, only the character of Lucio, played by a veteran actor named Zhu Xu, really came to grips with the sense of bawdiness the play warrants. When the Duke and Isabella embraced and kissed each other in the closing moments of the play it was done with their backs to the audience.

"We did not play it as explicitly as it would have been done in the West, but the message was clear," Ying said. "One always has to consider the tastes and customs of one's audience -- how much will they accept and so on. The only thing we cut out were jokes which were so obscure that no one would have understood them."

Shakespear as Ying Ruocheng sees it is but the beginning of a revival of interest in Western theater in China. He hopes that in the not too distant future other, more modern plays will be performed in Peking and elsewhere. Audiences, too, he feels, are beginning to look forward to a richer variety of material than they have been used to until now.

But as Chinese audiences are basically conservative, it will take a number of years before they will come to accept anything approaching experimental.

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