From: Alexa Huang, “Shakespeare on the Chinese Stage 1839-2004,” PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2004.
by Alexa Huang
2:30-4:00 pm, Wednesday September 4, 2002
Playwriting Office, Beijing Jingju Company, Beijing, China
HUANG: Your jingju Othello, the first Chinese stylized theater Shakespeare in the 1980s, was staged to full houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin between 1983 and 1986. It was said to have initiated a new wave of experiments with xiqu Shakespeare performances in China. What is the historical background of your adaptation? How did the audience react?
MA: In fact, my jingju Othello is the first jingju Shakespeare since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. It was quite a few years earlier than the xiqu Shakespeare performances at the first international Chinese Shakespeare Festival [in 1986]. Although there were sporadic attempts to stage Shakespeare’s plays in xiqu styles, my jingju Othello was the first serious attempt to perform Shakespeare in a traditional Chinese music theater. Two of the early xiqu Shakespeares in the 1930s and the 1940s that I remember are an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet called Zhuqing ji [The Tempering of Love] and a jingju Macbeth called Xieshou yin [Imprint of the Bloody Hands], adapted and directed by my Master Hao Shouchen. Since my experimental stage work was new, I encountered numerous difficulties during the initial phase of exploring the possibility of staging it and later during rehearsal.
The older generation in the audience did not like the jingju Othello. There was a psychological barrier that was preventing the “traditionalists” from appreciating performances of new or foreign plays. Many of them left half way through the performance; others refrained from commenting on the performance.
However, there were many people who applauded the achievement of this jingju Othello. The famous British scholar, Phillip Brockbank, saw the production and said it was very close to his ideal performance. The vice mayor of Beijing, Chen Haosu, also attended the premiere. After the curtain call, Mr. Chen stepped on stage and hailed our performance with a Chinese couplet: “The hero is beguiled, the beauty falls victim; exotic ambiance, Chinese style!” His words meant a lot to me and the cast. A young couple in the audience came to the backstage after the production and showed us their handkerchief. It was soaking wet with tears. They told us they were deeply moved by the production.
Kuang Jianlian (stage name Hongxian Nü) of the Guangdong-based Yueju [Cantonese opera] Theater Company was one actor/director who was greatly inspired by my jingju Othello. After seeing my performance, she began working on a yueju adaptation of Merchant of Venice. Her Merchant of Venice was staged during the first international Chinese Shakespeare Festival in 1986.