The Royal Shakespeare Company to tour China

Actor Alex Hassell, who plays the lead role in Henry V, is excited at the prospect of performing the play to new audiences.
Actor Alex Hassell, who plays the lead role in Henry V, is excited at the prospect of performing the play to new audiences. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company embarks on its first major tour of China next year, presenting the Bard's history plays about bloodshed, honour and kingship in mediaeval England to a new and potentially vast audience.

Four hundred years since William Shakespeare's death, the presti- gious theatre company will take productions of Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in February and March.

The trilogy is not well known in China and most people in the audience are likely to be seeing the plays for the first time.

The romantic tragedy Romeo And Juliet, for instance, would probably be more well known.

On the other hand, Shakespeare is enduringly popular among the audiences in China and the story- lines and colourful characters in the history plays should make for compelling shows, the organisers say.

"The audience will be sitting on the edge of their seats, genuinely wanting to know what happens next," said Mr Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University's Institute of World Theatre and Film.

That is a thrilling prospect for the cast and crew as they seek to bring the courts and bloody battlefields of England and France to life in 21st-century China.

Alex Hassell, who plays the lead role in Henry V, currently playing at London's Barbican Centre, said he was excited at the prospect of performing the play in a context "untethered from its theatrical history".

He added: "The idea that maybe they will have no notions at all about what the play is and who the people in it are and what's going to happen would be very cool."

Shakespeare was taken to China in the late 19th century by British missionaries.

A translated version of Charles and Mary Lamb's children's book, Tales From Shakespeare, in the early 20th century spread his popularity further.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese scholar Zhu Shenghao translated nearly all of Shakespeare's plays, but they fell from view under the restrictions of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, said Mr Graves.

Now, though, Shakespeare is widely taught in Chinese universities. The Royal Shakespeare Company, based in the playwright's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, is hoping to attract new audiences with its tour.

The performances are part of a wider project to build links between the company and China, announced last year as the British government seeks closer economic ties with Beijing.

So what is the appeal for Chinese audiences of a British playwright who worked four centuries ago and often wrote about events which took place even earlier?

Mr Graves cited factors including Shakespeare's enduring reputation as well as the wave of famous actors in Shakespearean productions, including Benedict Cumberbatch.

"I personally know of 20 Chinese people who went to London for the express purpose of seeing his recent Hamlet," he added.

Professor Li Ruru, who teaches Chinese theatre studies at Leeds University in northern England, argued that an interest in status would also draw theatregoers to the productions.

The word Royal, in The Royal Shakespeare Company's name, is "very attractive", she said.

"Seeing a Shakespeare production in the original language, Stratford the birthplace of the Bard - everything will add status."

A taste for "spectacular" social events in China, she added, could also boost the tour's appeal.

Henry V alone requires 72 trunks of costumes and artistic director Gregory Doran has described the company as a "big lumbering ox when it comes into town".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'The Royal Shakespeare Company to tour China'. Print Edition | Subscribe