Home / Lifestyle / X-Ray

Western classics take the local stage

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-04-06 09:55


Chinese theatergoers don't buy Salesman 

Producer for Zhang Yimou 'deserves an Oscar award'

Reel increases

Western-style plays first came to China in 1907, and the very first was La Dame aux Camelias, the Alexandre Duma fils classic about a high-society courtesan who sacrifices her health and wealth for true love.

The title role of Marguerite was played by a male who had studied in Japan, as there was a stigma against women in performing arts at the time.

Not only was Camelias a great choice because of its artistic value and popularity in the West, but also, it posed almost no cultural barrier.

The subject matter of courtesans and young noblemen has made its way into so many Chinese folktales and legends that the French story must have sounded very familiar even to one never exposed to Western culture. The influx of Western classics has undoubtedly enriched Chinese performing arts.

But the choice of repertory is crucial in determining whether a certain play jibes with the domestic audience.

Jane Eyre, adapted from the Charlotte Bronte novel and produced by the National Theater of China, has been wildly successful, partly because it hits home.

When the governess, with no money and plain looks, demands respect from a man who owns a castle, she wins a rapturous applause from theater lovers, who are accustomed to seeing beautiful young women relegated to concubine status to get ahead in materialistic terms.

I remember a Chinese production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus by the People's Art Theater.

It was circa 1986, not long after the film version won major Academy Awards.

In the absence of pirated discs, the stage play was the only choice.

It did not pale a glimmer in even the hindsight comparison with the Milos Forman-directed movie. The portrayal of a court musician whose jealousy destroyed a genius has eerie similarities with Chinese art and literature.

Shakespeare is inarguably the most produced of Western playwrights.

However, the thematic complexities of such works as Hamlet have made many Chinese stagings mere curiosities.

Lin Zhaohua's version, dating from 1990, is a muddled distillation that attempts to relate to contemporary China but fails to convey any coherence. However, it has in the title role the great Pu Cunxin, who more or less brushes away the cobwebs of directorial gimmicks and delivers the familiar lines with power and pathos.

However, Lin's 2008 interpretation of Coriolanus, a lesser-known historical play by Shakespeare, struck an unexpected chord when a live rock band brought out the implicit modernity of the theme.

The dichotomy and symbiosis of the idol and the fan base gained much relevancy and poignancy in an era when celebrities are invented and destroyed in a matter of days by seemingly autonomous but endlessly manipulatable online mobs.

By the way, Lin is China's reigning proponent of Western classic plays.

His idiosyncrasies in treatment have resulted in many memorable recreations - and, perhaps, an equal number of quixotic ones that pushed us farther from the essence of the original masterpieces.

But, unlike the new Salesman, he is never boring.