Chinese productions of Shakespeare return to the Globe in London

Three years after first shows in Chinese, staged during London Olympics, Hong Kong and Chinese companies return with productions of Macbeth - a world premiere - and Richard III

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 6:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 6:21am

It is natural enough that there is considerable local interest in the Shakespeare's Globe touring production of Hamlet, coming to the Lyric Theatre in September.

More surprising, perhaps, is the enthusiasm of the Globe's management for presenting productions of Shakespeare in London by theatre companies from Hong Kong and China.

Actors from Hong Kong speaking Cantonese, and from China speaking Putonghua, have already trodden the boards at the Southwark reconstruction of Shakespeare's "wooden O", and both the theatre companies concerned - Hong Kong's Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio and the National Theatre of China - have been invited back. The latter reprises its production of Richard III from July 23 to 25, and the former will be performing Macbeth from August 17 to August 23.

"In 2012 we invited both companies for a big festival called Globe To Globe, which we had when the Olympics were in London, and we were looking for Shakespeare productions from all over the world in different languages" says Shakespeare's Globe executive producer, Tom Bird.

"We knew a little bit about the Titus Andronicus that the Tang Shu-wing company were already doing, and we talked to the National Theatre of China at the same time because we knew they'd done some Shakespeare. So, in 2012, we ended up commissioning a production of Richard III from the National Theatre of China and bringing Titus Andronicus over from Hong Kong." ( Titus Andronicus 2.0 will be restaged in this city in September.)

The performances were well received, and attracted a substantial number of ethnically Chinese theatre-goers, according to Bird. "It is a very varied audience, which we're proud of, and we try to engage with the Chinese community in London and further afield in Britain. Whenever we bring work in from abroad we're very keen that there is a part of the audience for whom the language of the production is their native language, and who can understand it in that direct way. It's the best kind of audience development," he says.

"The Chinese community in London is a major constituent of our audience anyway. There are London Chinese and Chinese visitors who come to shows here, and other visitors who aren't Chinese but are fascinated by the idea of watching theatre from China."

For minimalist theatre director Tang Shu-wing, directing a play at the Globe was an experience quite different from working in any other theatre.

"There's all the open space and the standing spectators, which you can't find in any modern theatre. The proximity of the actors to the audience may be as little as one metre, and there is open sky. It's very exposed," he says.

Some adaptations had to be made to Tang's Titus Andronicus to allow for the unique characteristics of the space.

For example, because the venue does not have a facility for lighting changes, Tang tightened the content.

"All I could get was a complete exposure of everything happening on the stage, and I had to take this into consideration."

For Macbeth at the Globe he is better prepared, and, in an interesting reversal of what happened with Titus Andronicus, this production gets its world premiere at the Globe before coming back to Hong Kong.

It has been co-commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and local audiences will be able to see it next year, although not before the production has undergone some modifications for a very different performance space. Whichever production audiences see, Tang's staging of Macbeth will be far from traditional.

"The basic approach is to let a modern couple, through a dream, encounter the universe of Macbeth and the characters. Then at the end of the play the couple come out of the dream, and contemplate their possible places in reality," he says.

"I think the dark side of humanity exists in everybody - it is just whether you have the appropriate circumstances to bring it out. In dreams you can encounter many unusual images and realities."

Those in the audience who don't speak Cantonese, will not be at much of a disadvantage, says Tang, who is known for an emphasis on physicality and the body language of acting in his productions.

"What is lost in translation, I think, is only a minor portion of a whole Shakespeare production in a modern theatre context. There is a lot of interesting stuff to investigate. The audience already know the plot, even if they can't follow the speech line by line. What draws them to the play, I think, is the action of the characters and the physicality of the actors," he says.

The company will consist of 14 actors and one musician, playing an assortment of acoustic instruments. In a rare departure from the Globe's usual "live music only" policy, there will also be recorded music.

"It will make the landscape richer," says Tang. "Live music will assume quite a major role in the presentation."

Bird, who is involved in broadening the Globe's international connections, is particularly satisfied with the links with China now being established.

The Chinese community in London is a major constituent of our audience anyway. There are London Chinese and Chinese visitors who come to shows here, and other visitors who aren’t Chinese but are fascinated by the idea of watching some theatre from China
Tom Bird, Shakespeare’s Globe executive producer

"We're delighted that we're getting them back," he says of the two companies. "It reflects our desire to look beyond the UK for the best work that is being done with Shakespeare, and also to work with Chinese companies, because there's some amazing theatre going on both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. And then there's the growing popularity of Shakespeare in China, which, from going there, we've come to notice."

The Globe brought an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew to Hong Kong in 2013 and returned in 2014 with A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also played in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou.

"That got us on the cultural map in a few Chinese cities and that's something that we want to build on every year," says Bird. "The Hamlet that we're sending out is part of an extraordinary project to tour to every country in the world [it has so far played in 115 of a planned 196], but that will play in Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong. I think that shows the importance of China to us because in most other countries we're only stopping in one city."

Tang thinks that the Globe management has identified a significant opportunity, and that there is a real hunger in Britain for more Chinese-language drama.

"I think after the Globe to Globe festival they realised that international cooperation can be done in non-traditional ways, and that there are ethnic communities in London who welcome plays reflecting their own culture. They have certainly started to adopt a more embracing strategy in international collaboration," says Tang.

So far only Tang's company and the National Theatre of China have been invited to bring a Chinese perspective on Shakespeare to the Globe, but Bird says the theatre is willing to look further afield.

"They are the only two companies we've worked with so far, but we certainly wouldn't put a lid on that. We're very open to discussions about new relationships, particularly with companies from other cities," he says. "The sky's the limit on that front."