Beijing, Beijing Opera, Chen Yu, China, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Feng Gang, Fu Xiru, Guo Ruiyue, Hamlet, Opera Review, Shakespeare, Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, William Shakespeare, Zhao Huan, Zhu Heji
Tonight Tychy dispenses with the foreplay and finally gets stuck into Beijing. When I visited the capital in 2010, I tried everything except the Beijing Opera. The girl whom I was with at the time was scornful of this ancient cultural tradition – it was modernity’s meagre compensation to stuffy old people – and, in any case, you could always see it on the television. In fairness to her, the TV channels between them seemed to provide the Opera on tap. Returning to my hotel room at two in the morning from a long day of shopping malls and swanky restaurants, I would watch the Opera on TV, without subtitles, and drunkenly mourn my continued exile from the old, true China.
The sheer spectacle of the Opera seemed so surreal and glamorous, and yet with such sophisticated beauty, that it waited far beyond anything that I had ever reached before. A friend visited Beijing several months later, and he also managed to miss out on the Opera. His partner was similarly not keen. But tonight we are attending the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan” at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, feeling not quite like men who have slunk away to watch the football together. My old Beijing flame will only scoff that I should text her a photograph of our glum faces at the end of the performance.
Yet “The Revenge” is intended as an “introduction” to the Opera, rather than as relief for those who are already infatuated with it. Prince Zi Dan (Fu Xiru) turns out to be merely Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a headdress and some bejewelled silk pyjamas. For the first fifteen minutes, this is indeed the Beijing Opera – we are enthralled by the costumes, the capers, the wild, wonky music, and that convoluted high-pitched yodelling, which seems to swirl and sparkle like a mountain stream – but at some point it is suddenly Hamlet, and we are following the Opera as if it was merely the latest experimental adaptation of the Dane. It only becomes the Opera again during the pomp and grandeur of the final act, when Hamlet and Laertes arrive adorned gorgeously for a feudal battle.
They put on a good Hamlet, although the writer Feng Gang could not stomach the whole horror and so his Gertrude (Jiang Rong) deliberately drinks the poison intended for her son as a redemptive act. The picture of her nervous attempts to edge between Hamlet and proffered stoup of wine is one of the most striking moments of the Opera. Another highlight is provided by Polonius’ (Zhu Heji) dying antics – he dies very much as he had lived – although this clowning about always floats upon a certain unease. Whilst I am very sensitive and I weep with Hamlet and Ophelia, the theatre as a whole did not know whether to laugh along to the tragedy. Some people even laughed when Hamlet popped his clogs.
To claim that the cast is good would be monstrously offensive. I imagine that there is a lifetime of sacrifices behind each of these performances – to take a few steps in one of those costumes would probably kill the average actor, but the cast perform their acrobatics without visibly breaking into a sweat, and they have even enough breath left to sing afterwards. The performers have the quality of fine, stiff clockwork dolls who cannot see or hear us, and even when facing the final applause, it is as if they are waving farewell to the twenty-first century and floating back to their world on a cloud of opium.
But there must be a Chinese equivalent of Hamlet? If an audience can follow Hamlet, then they can surely follow anything, and one dislikes the mild assumption of bigotry which imagines that the theatre would empty if they had not subdued it first with our own most familiar and traditional playwright. Shakespeare’s words are read rather than heard, shooting back across the translator’s tennis court in subtitles, but in this respect we could have just as readily coped with even the gist of an original Chinese story.
Ah, Beijing, will I always remain exiled? I have been dazzled by your beauty, and yet I still cannot reach your true heart.