Review: Macbeth – ‘the Scottish play’ moved to ancient China

Tang Shu-wing’s Cantonese Macbeth at the Hong Kong Arts Festival doesn’t quite work, despite the thought that went into the adaptation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 4:16pm

Following his critically-acclaimed Cantonese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in 2012, veteran stage director Tang Shu-wing returns with Macbeth, also for the Hong Kong Arts Festival but this time in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe in Britain.

In many ways this is a far greater challenge not least because, unlike Titus Andronicus, “the Scottish play” is a more familiar work, and is staged more frequently by theatre companies around the world. Comparisons are, therefore, inevitable.

But Tang is a gifted artist and you can always count on him to come up with something different in his productions. Constantly experimenting, he has done works that strip the stage bare so the audience can concentrate on the words and action. Anticipation for his take on Macbeth was high, especially after he presented the work at the Globe in London last August.

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Though the synopsis suggests a departure from the original work: “A modern couple dreams that they enter the universe of Macbeth in the buried past of ancient China”. Most of the cast wear Chinese operatic gowns while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in modern day attire. This production is, at its core, a faithful adaptation. All the character names remain the same.

The play opens with the encounter between the three witches (played by male actors Wong Siu-fai, Cheng Ka-chun and Lau Chun-him) and Macbeth (Ng Wai-shek) and his comrade-in-arms Banquo (Lo Chun-ho). Here, the two men’s future is revealed in a prophecy, and the seed is sown for the tragedy and murders that follow.

Under Tang’s direction, Ng’s Macbeth is more hesitant than ambitious. The actor’s interpretation of his role is more sympathetic. It is not until the final act we finally see a man brimming with conviction and aggression.

Rosa Maria Velasco is a talented actress and I’ve seen her shine in a number of stage productions. Unfortunately this isn’t one of them and it has more to do with miscasting. Her Lady Macbeth lacks depth and dimension. Where is the ambitious, scheming, ruthless, venomous murderess that makes her character so deliciously evil?

Perhaps the young actress is still too inexperienced to handle a meaty role that calls for a deeper understanding of the character’s psychological complexity. When Lady Macbeth finally loses her mind, Velasco performance is, nonetheless, touching (which makes me think she’d probably make a far better Ophelia in Hamlet than Lady Macbeth).

There are several scenes in which the play takes on a comical tone and I’m not sure whether that is intended or not – this is a dark tragedy after all.

But when the murdered king’s son Malcolm (Tang Chi-kin) tests the loyalty of his new ally Macduff (Yuen Fu-wah) by lying about his lack of virtues and (leadership) qualities, the lines are delivered in such a way that he appears to be referencing the head of this city – and it brings the house down.

But these gems are far and few in between in this production and the idea of shifting the action from 16th century Scotland to ancient China doesn’t quite work despite all the thought that has evidently gone into the adaptation of Chinese operatic movements and aesthetics

Definitely deserving a mention is the excellent live percussion from Billy Leong whose performance adds tension and pace to the drama.

Macbeth

Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio, Hong Kong City Hall Theatre

Reviewed: March 16

Runs until March 20