A Most Rare Vision: Shakespeare in China

The Shakespeare Redemption: Oscar Winner Tim Robbins directs ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
6月 12, 2014
6月 24, 2014
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A Most Rare Vision: Shakespeare in China

Check out the full New York Times article at this link. 

BEIJING — On the final night recently of the Actors’ Gang production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” here, theatergoers were treated to an unexpected — and rather meta — performance.

Stepping in for an ill colleague at the last minute to play Peter Quince, the bumbling director of the troupe of Mechanicals who put on a play within the play, was the show’s own director, Tim Robbins. For two and a half hours, Mr. Robbins and 13 other actors performed their minimalist rendition of this fantastical Shakespeare classic before a packed theater of 500 people, most of them Chinese, in the National Center for the Performing Arts, the sleek elliptical structure known as the Egg.

“It would have been nice to have had a rehearsal,” Mr. Robbins said after the show. But if there were hiccups, the audience didn’t seem to have noticed much or even cared.

Most sat riveted throughout, alternating between reading the Chinese subtitles on screens flanking the stage and watching the actors as they performed Shakespeare’s original words in English. Several slapstick scenes elicited roars of laughter, and at the end of the performance, many stayed in the auditorium for the postshow discussion with members of the Actors’ Gang, the Los Angeles theater company that Mr. Robbins, an Oscar-winning movie actor, helped found.

“The audiences here are incredible,” Mr. Robbins said, “so much warmer than in the States.” He said that, before arriving in China, he was anxious about whether the comedic elements would translate, but it appeared that they did.

The show was one of 10 performances that the Actors’ Gang put on this month as part of a two-city, two-week visit to China. While the ensemble had toured internationally before, this was the first time it had performed in mainland China and the first time it had brought “Midsummer” to audiences abroad. For each of its six performances in Beijing and four at the 1,200-seat DaGuan Theater in Shanghai, tickets were sold out in advance.

While the appetite for theater, including Western-style spoken drama, as it is known in Chinese, has been growing, particularly among the young, the rise in foreign productions is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Actors’ Gang “Midsummer” is only the second production by an American company to be shown at the National Center for the Performing Arts, one of the top performing halls in China since it opened in 2007. (The first was an L.A. Theater Works’ “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” last year.) As a result, in a country where theater has traditionally been dominated by forms like Chinese opera, with its ornate costumes and heavily stylized movements, and where most people are familiar with the name Shakespeare but few have studied his plays, the bare-bones production of “Midsummer” is still something of a novelty.

“People have been very curious in the beginning of the show, because, instead of hiding anything, everything is present onstage,” Mr. Robbins said. “They aren’t really used to that.”

Alison M. Friedman, the founder of Ping Pong Productions, a Beijing-based cultural-exchange production company, thought to bring the Actors’ Gang to China after seeing “Midsummer” in Los Angeles last year.

“I left the show with this goofy smile on my face,” she explained. “I was struck by the honesty of the performers. Some of the actors made Shakespeare sound like everyday conversation.”

The show is one of two “Midsummer” productions being presented in Beijing as part of the performing-arts center’s series commemorating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. In contrast to the Shakespeare’s Globe production coming this fall, which will feature traditional costumes and staging, the Actors’ Gang production is stripped down, with a modern twist. The actors, some of whom double or triple up on roles, change costumes on the sides of the stage in full view of the audience, and 3-D glasses are among the props.

While every play, Chinese or foreign, requires a performance permit from the relevant authorities in China, bringing a classic like “Midsummer” was relatively straightforward, Ms. Friedman said. No changes were specifically made for Chinese audiences or officials.

One issue that did arise was how to identify the troupe itself.

In Chinese, the term “gang,” or “bang,” has had a deeply negative historical connotation, due largely to the Gang of Four that presided over the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The solution, Ms. Friedman said, was to use the less politically fraught term “ban,” meaning “squad” or “class,” which sounds similar to “bang” and is in some way a nod to the origins of the Actors’ Gang, which was founded in 1981 by Mr. Robbins and several classmates at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On its last night in Beijing, the troupe fielded a wide range of questions from the crowd: What had its members learned performing for an international audience? Why do the play so conversationally? What was the inspiration behind the original music (by Dave Robbins, Tim’s brother)?

No one asked about “The Shawshank Redemption,” the film for which Tim Robbins is best known in China, nor about “Back to 1942,” a Chinese historical film in which he was featured. (Feng Xiaogang, the film’s director, watched the play from the front row.)

Afterward, one audience member, Li Jun, 63, said she was glad to have attended, though she was not familiar with the story nor with Mr. Robbins.

“Even though the performance is fairly simple, the meaning of the story is very deep,” she said. “Every movement, the acting, the singing, the dancing, is performed to the utmost,” she added. “You can tell they are doing it for the audience.”