The internationally renowned Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company brought a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed as a highly stylized Peking opera, to the Harris Theater for a two-night run on September 28 and 29. The opera, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, was sung in Chinese with English supertitles. The company follows the strict rules of Chinese operatic tradition, including specific types of singing for such roles as a clown or a serious tragic heroine. (Gertrude sang in a high-pitched, warbling voice, for example.) Each type of role also has its own particular style of dress, movement, and vocalization. Some actors, for instance, performed in whiteface, while others had elaborate masks. A small band just offstage played music traditional to the Peking Opera throughout the performance, with the tempo and style of music changing to fit the scenes and to accompany the actors as they sang arias. The libretto was a stripped down but recognizable version of the main events from Shakespeare’s play.
The intricate costumes and stylized acting made this production of Hamlet an intriguing blend of traditions that sometimes worked well, and at other times may have puzzled a Western audience. For instance, actors sometimes moved in extremely acrobatic ways that did not always seem connected to the events in the story. In one instance, when Hamlet (Prince Zi Dan) tells of his father’s ghost, he raises one leg up flush with his ear. At other times, however, the acrobatic movements worked splendidly, as in the highly stylized duel in the last act between Hamlet and Laertes. Another intriguing cultural choice was to portray the Polonius character as a clown figure. He walked about exclusively on his knees for most of the show, but during his death scene he sat cross-legged, pulled up his knees, and rolled around on the floor like a roly-poly toy.
Both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his brother Claudius were portrayed by actors in elaborate masks, so we never see their faces. The frightening mask worked especially well for the ghost, who appeared out of a mist, rendering him even more supernatural. Claudius’s mask also seemed to fit with his formal role as king, making him seem less human and more distant from the other actors. One could not help but be reminded of ancient Greek theater, where all the actors performed in masks, with audiences trained to recognize whether it was the mask of a king or a young girl.
Another feature of the Chinese opera tradition is minimal settings and props. Actors mimed some actions, such as riding a horse. And instead of formal sets, the troupe used three simple backdrops throughout most of the play. These backdrops were reversed for the final scene, to reveal a single red dragon. Simple chairs used in many scenes were later tipped over and turned backwards to represent gravestones during the gravedigger scene.
The formality of the costumes and movements probably worked best in the final scene; a formal setting at court with the masked Claudius presiding in the center. For the duel in this scene between Hamlet and Laertes, the two combatants entered in Chinese warrior costumes. The duel itself was choreographed as an elaborate acrobatic dance.
Overall, this was a production that challenged the audience with its blend of Eastern and Western traditions. But our familiarity with the Hamlet story allowed us to notice how this production both honored the familiar story and also made it strange and new by adding these formal elements of Chinese operatic tradition.
Cynthia Rutz is an instructor and past chair of University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a great books discussion program for adults. She also teaches at and is director of faculty development for Valparaiso University. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, with her dissertation on Shakespeare’s King Lear and its folktale analogues. She received her BA in mathematics and philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.