Othello and King Lear bared their souls on the stages of Peking and Shanghai recently in the first performances of Shakespeare since the founding of Communist China 37 years ago. While King Lear was portrayed as an ancient Chinese monarch in one of the 26 productions of China's first official Shakespeare Festival, another production attempted to give him an Elizabethan image that, oddly enough, evoked shades of Marx and Moses. ``Othello'' and ``Macbeth'' were performed in Chinese, in the form of Peking opera, complete with falsetto arias, gongs, and cymbals.
``Twelfth Night'' was put on with an all-woman cast. And the People's Liberation Army performed excerpts in the original English from ``The Merchant of Venice'' -- a spectacle that 10 years ago would have been denounced as bourgeois claptrap, incongruous with the drama of socialism.
Perhaps the most bizarre piece of avant- garde theater performed in China since the bawdy days of Shanghai in the 1930s was a student production of scenes from ``Timon of Athens.'' Timon and his traitorous entourage, who looked as if they belonged to a heavy-metal rock band, had shaved heads and painted faces; they leapt around the dark, candlelit stage before a backdrop of torn sheets and curls of cellophane hanging from the rafters.
``We consider all of this an experiment,'' said Chen Gang, general secretary of the festival, at an informal gathering before the ``Timon'' production. ``We're considering how people responded to philosophy in other times, and we're trying to combine that with the philosophy of our times. Both attempts are aimed at getting more people to understand and accept Shakespeare. Of course, such attempts could be considered very controversial.''
But not so controversial that the 12 plays in Peking and the 14 in Shanghai were not able to receive the obligatory approval of the Ministry of Culture, as all performances must do before going on stage. The students of the Second Foreign Language Institute, for example, who put on the radical ``Timon'' production, had to first learn and perform the play in Chinese before ministry authorities.
The festival opened simultaneously in Peking and Shanghai on April 10, to mark the English bard's 442nd birthday, and continued through the 24th. According to Mr. Chen, vice president of the Chinese Drama Association, more than 70,000 theatergoers attended the Peking and Shanghai performances, and at least 100 million television viewers tuned in to live performances of ``Antony and Cleopatra'' and ``King Lear.''
At the opening night ceremonies in Peking before ``Richard III,'' Sir Richard Evans, Britain's ambassador to China, said, ``Even Shakespeare would have been surprised and delighted to know that his plays were bringing enjoyment to the people of a different culture, in a different language, and in a different age.''
The first Chinese translation of Shakespeare was published 120 years ago, and several of his plays appeared on Shanghai stages in the 1930s. But after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, Shakespeare was put aside. His plays were totally banned during the Cultural Revolution.
Lu Ji Liang, a drama critic who has become a voice for the young experimental figures in Peking drama circles, said Shakespeare had been impossible to perform up to now because the ``authorities had strongly criticized artists from the capitalist societies. But since 1980 our point of view of the cultural heritage of the capitalist societies has changed.''
While government restrictions on foreign productions have eased up slightly in the past few years, they remain tight when it comes to experimental Chinese theater, according to Mr. Lu. The profanity in Peter Shaffer's rowdy production of ``Amadeus'' was almost untouched in the popular Peking rendition three months ago. But last year's production of ``Women'' (or ``We''), a story critical of Mao Tse-tung, though written by a People's Liberation Army playwright, was closed before its scheduled run finished.
Tickets to each of the Shakespeare productions went for 1 yuan (about 33 cents). At a traditional production of ``King Lear,'' much of the audience was confused and restless, despite the play's adaptation into Chinese. The Chinese are accustomed to lavish, colorful productions, and strict adherence to traditional gestures and style often is more appealing and respected than dialogue. The sparse staging and complex dialogue of the production by the Tianjin People's Art Theater, regardless of the foreign flair added by the blond wigs, white tights, and a sword fight here and there, provoked some members of the audience to duck out before old Lear realized what his two disloyal daughters were up to.
However, a revised version of ``King Lear'' (``Yi Ya Wang''), staged in Chinese by the Central Drama Institute, was well received in Peking.
At the ``Timon'' production, the student-dominated audience knew they were experiencing something more than just Shakespeare, something very contemporary, very foreign, and very titillating. The students, none of them actors, had mastered the old English so well they were able to take the play beyond the language and have fun with intonation and choreography.
Before the performance, which received a standing ovation, a strait-laced young man appeared on stage. ``This fable, old yet eternal,'' he said in the usual narrative that precedes a theater performance in China, ``demonstrates the power that gold, glittering gold, has in this money-oriented world. It may therefore remind us that there are things of more value in the world.''
Such as Shakespeare in China.