Stage production combines mbines Shakespeare, Tang Xianzu anzu
When Li Ruru first read William Shakespeare’ s Hamlet, she didn’t really like it— she was then 11 years old, and the complicated relationships and dramatic tragedy were too much for her to comprehend.
But 50 years later, the 64-year-old teaches comparative and intercultural theater studies, including researching the works of Shakespeare, all thanks to her family.
Her mother, Li Yuru (19232008), was a famous Peking Opera actress and her stepfather, Cao Yu (1910-94), a renowned Chinese playwright.
Li Ruru, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Shanghai Theater Academy, is now professor of Chinese theater studies at the University of Leeds, where she obtained her doctoral degree in drama and theater in 1993.
She has spent the last two years shaping an ambitious project — a stage production called A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming Under the Southern Bough, which combines the 17th-century masterpieces of Shakespeare with works by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu, both of whom died in 1616.
“I knew that 2016 would be a great opportunity to celebrate these two literary giants. You cannot wait for another 100 years,” Li tells China Daily.
“For me, it’s also a wish to introduce Chinese theater to foreign audiences because people don’t know about it.”
The collaboration comprises two parts: Chinese students from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing interpret Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and students from the University of Leeds perform Tang’s play Record of the Southern Bough.
The production premiered at the University of Leeds on July 27 and moved to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Last week, it was staged in Shanghai and Beijing.
Its run ended in Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, Tang’s birthplace, on Sunday, as part of a series of events commemorating Shakespeare and Tang.
WhenLi initiated the idea of the production, it was considered “daydreaming” and “unachievable”. But she went ahead and chose students who are not theater majors.
“The most interesting part of the project is to have young people without theater knowledge learn and perform works of Shakespeare and Tang,” says Li.
One of the most challenging parts was to shorten Tang’s Record of the Southern Bough, a 22-hour, 44-scene work, which is about a drunken man’s journey in his dream.
Adam Strickson, one of the co-adapters of Tang’s Record of the Southern Bough, says: “It’s the longest play I’ve ever read. We had to find what matters to the audience.
“So, while retaining the differences, we look for what we have in common, such as where we go in life and the value of living in today’s society as an individual.”
Li Jun, who teaches European and American drama at the Beijing-based university and who co-wrote the script of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming Under the Southern Bough, says it’s challenging for Chinese performers to make Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream relevant to a contemporary society.
“We made some changes to Shakespeare’s original version from a Chinese perspective. For example, there are two men who love the same woman in the play, but we have two women who fall in love with the same man in our version. It’s a way of showing the rise of women in Chinese society, with specific reference to young urban women,” says Li Jun.
Director Steve Ansell’s journey with the project could be said to have started in Shanghai when he first visited China in 2012.
He first worked in Li Ruru’s play The Sun Is Not For Us, which was inspired by Cao Yu, and brought together characters and stories from the playwright’s four most-famous theater works in a one-hour production.
“The 400th anniversary presents the perfect opportunity to revisit, re-imagine and reposition Tang for a contemporary audiences both in China and the UK as a contemporary of Shakespeare and as a master storyteller in his own right,” says Ansell.
Rachel Turner, a 21-year-old student from University of Leeds, plays three roles in the production.
She decided to extend her stay in China for a year to study at Shanghai Theater Academy.
“This is a new experience for me and I hope that this performance will be the start of joining our cultures as well as our societies,” says Turner.
It’s also a wish to introduce Chinese theater to foreign audiences.” Li Ruru, producer of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming Under the Southern Bough
The play AMidsummerNight’sDreamingUndertheSouthernBough features young students from China and the United Kingdom, most of whom are not theater majors.