Recently some of us went to see a production of Hamlet at the Capital Theatre. The performance was by a small British Shakespeare troupe and was thankfully in English, with Chinese translation projected on screens on the sides of the stage. I was dubious about seeing Shakespeare in China, both because I saw a mediocre production of Hamlet in the states before I left and because some of the shows we’ve seen here have been absolute technical disasters.
The tragedy was preformed with a minimalist set consisting of a single platform of exposed construction in an arch shape. This acted surprisingly well as a watchtower, throne, ship, and bedroom. The troupe consisted of seven actor-musicians who frequently moved in and out of several roles. Musicians were positioned stage left and at different points included a guitar, a ukulele, percussion, and vocals. Overall the acting was very good with some interesting decisions that I hadn’t seen in other performances. What follows are some of my random observations.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were extremely comical and were dressed as twins, even though they both played other parts throughout the play. Fortinbras was completely eliminated from the script, probably for time’s sake more than anything else. During “To be or not to be,” when Polonius and the king are spying on Hamlet, they are disguised as rocks on the beach. Hamlet is apparently considering whether or not to throw himself off a cliff. When the players are putting on their play, the actors pretend to be marionettes. This was very cleverly done and must have required quite a bit of work to figure out. Later, when the king calls for lights during the play within the play, the lights rise for intermission in the actual theatre. The director chose to have Hamlet and Ophelia go shoeless ad an indicator of their madness. When Hamlet kills Polonius he does so by very realistically breaking his neck, complete with gruesome sound effects. Unfortunately, this eliminates Polonius’ line to the effect of “I am slain.”
The clash between Chinese and Western was evident in the technical aspects of the performance, which were flawed in ways that have been common to all the Chinese performances I have seen. The Chinese consistently overdo their special effects. Hamlet’s undoing was a noisy smoke machine that whirred each time it produced a weak puff of smoke in the corner of the stage, eliciting a laugh from the audience. Additionally, the lighting was a little overly creative. The ghost was cast in a mix of orange and green light, reflecting brightly off his burial shrouds. After he disappeared, Hamlet then steps into the same area, making it very difficult to take him seriously. The fencing scenes were well choreographed, but other examples of stage fighting appeared utterly unrealistic.
In the end, I was very pleased that I decided to go see the show. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in the audience if I didn’t speak English.