A Chinese Macbeth with insomnia

Chinese director Huang Ying's madcap spin on Shakespeare's Macbeth will be staged next month at the Esplanade.
Chinese director Huang Ying's madcap spin on Shakespeare's Macbeth will be staged next month at the Esplanade.PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

Macbeth is a besuited young Chinese man speaking colloquial Mandarin. His friend, Banquo, appears in drag in a scene, while his wife, Lady Macbeth, is prone to breaking out into English songs at emotional points.

This is the madcap, original world of an upcoming production of Shakespeare's Macbeth at the Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts.

It is directed by up-and-coming Chinese director Huang Ying, 38, who is known for his playful adaptations of the Bard.

He says his version of Macbeth had attracted controversy during previous stagings in China and Taiwan.

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"We subverted what was highbrow and grand. So some audiences felt rather conflicted, but others liked it," he tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview from Beijing, where he is based.

Performed in Mandarin, his adaptation is a departure from most traditional Shakespeare stagings. It is not set in any specific era, but will be given a "contemporary treatment", he says.

In the play, following a prophecy by three witches that he would be king and egged on by his wife, Macbeth decides to kill his king to seize the throne.

But guilt and retribution eventually send the couple into more violence and madness.

Huang says he had to "mentally spar with Shakespeare" to find new interpretations of the various characters.

"For example, could the character of Banquo be a Mr Nice Guy with hidden ulterior motives?" he asks. Banquo is an ally who is later murdered by the power-hungry Macbeth.

"We will also dress the Macbeth couple in rags typical of Chinese working-class folk to make them look silly even as they plot murders," adds Huang.

The play's satire is drawn from how Asian societies have Westernised as they develop over time, he says.

"I'm keen on exploring issues such as ambition and even sleep. Macbeth is plagued by insomnia, much like today's city dwellers," he adds.

He debuted the production at the Toga Arts Festival in Japan in 2013, under the guidance of veteran theatre practitioner Tadashi Suzuki, who is the production's artistic director.

The Japanese theatre expert is famous for his Suzuki training method, which emphasises the physical movements of actors on stage.

Chinese actor Tian Chong, 26, who plays the lead character in Macbeth, says: "The Suzuki method teaches me to be more precise and crisp in movement, and to focus better."

Tian says he enjoys the director's approach to the play as he did not treat it wholly as a "serious tragedy".

He adds: "He dealt with the characters in a relatable way and used his own way of explaining them to us.

"For example, in the office, there are people who will do anything for a pay raise. These Shakespearean characters are all around us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'A Chinese Macbeth with insomnia'. Print Edition | Subscribe