What accounts for China’s fascination with Shakespeare?
There are two dimensions to this, one internal and one external. Shakespeare’s texts have intrigued readers, theatregoers and theatre-makers within China for the last century or more partly because of a deep curiosity about Western culture. (A Chinese book which translated the plots of ten Shakespeare plays in 1903, for instance, was just called ‘Strange Tales from Overseas’).
The fascination with Shakespeare also reflects a growing appreciation of the literary richness, narrative power and philosophical depth of his writing, which can resonate powerfully with the traditions of Chinese thought and literature. (When Wen Jiabao visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011, for instance, he wrote a beautiful couplet in Mandarin in the visitors’ book: ‘He brings sunshine to your life, / Gives your dreams wings to fly’).
The recent surge in China’s interest in Shakespeare also reflects China’s increasing sense of itself as a country firmly on the world stage and in dialogue with others. Shakespeare’s plays long ago became an important part of the lingua franca of world drama: once any country with a great theatre tradition of its own becomes interested in reaching audiences beyond its own borders, its directors, translators and actors are likely to start investigating what they can bring to, and take from, the endlessly adaptable and generous plays of Shakespeare.
Why would a 400-year-old play about an English king (Henry V, for example) appeal to an audience in Shanghai today?
Part of the secret of Shakespeare’s enduring international popularity lies in his interest in dramatising family relationships: underneath his writings on political strife and historical transformation are perennial fairytale-like plots about sibling rivalry, marital choice and generational conflict.
Take the four history plays which the Royal Shakespeare Company is bringing to China in the spring – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. They may offer a great panoramic vision of a particular country moving from the Middle Ages towards modernity, but at their core, they are the saga of a family, and especially the story of how one young man, Prince Hal, grows up to become Henry V.
Shakespeare’s history plays are immensely popular in Britain, but it isn’t mainly because British people still care about what happened to particular warlords. If people still remember Henry IV, I suspect it is mainly because Shakespeare wrote two endlessly entertaining plays about what a hard time he had being a father.
If you can imagine what it is like to be a leader under pressure or a child with high expectations to meet, you will see the point of Henry V. People in Shanghai who value great storytelling don't need to know about the Battle of Agincourt to enjoy the play and be affected by it.
How important is the setting of Shakespeare’s plays to their success with audiences?
All producers of Shakespeare’s plays have to be adaptors; to some extent they have been since the beginning. Shakespeare’s scripts always had to be shortened for performance, even in his own time. 50 years after his death, theatres with perspective scenery replaced the open innyard-style playhouses for which he wrote, so that scenes had to be transposed and designs added. Fashions were updated too.
As with translation, there is a choice: directors might present a Shakespeare play as if it were a vivid and exotic souvenir from the time and place where it was first performed; or they might prefer to naturalise it, to make it look as though it is a brand-new play in a modern idiom; or they might prefer to set it somewhere else entirely. Each has its potential disadvantages, but the plays will lend themselves successfully to each.
Whether a production is popular with particular sections of the audience often has more to do with tastes in actors and in acting than with the time it is set in and the clothes the actors wear. Benedict Cumberbatch’s current production of Hamlet in London had completely sold out before anyone knew whether his Prince would be wearing modern clothes or Renaissance ones, for instance.
After translation into other languages, what remains especially original and creative in Shakespeare’s works? What gets lost in translation? What is gained?
One thing that is pretty much indestructible in Shakespeare is his sense of how to tell and angle a story by the way in which he shapes it into successive scenes. In the terms used by cinema scriptwriters now, he was very skilled at making ‘treatments’ as well as at writing dialogue. (Some other Elizabethan playwrights specialised in one or the other: Shakespeare did both). So you can make Romeo and Juliet into a ballet, taking out all the dialogue, but leaving the scenic structure intact – and it still works.