“The world is in chaos.” This is the phrase that replaces Hamlet’s famous, “The time is out of joint,” in Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company’s Peking Opera-style adaptation of Hamlet, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, performed at the Harris Theater. References to chaos become a refrain running through this production, with Zi Dan (Hamlet) demanding during his confrontation with Ophelia that she should “let me be a single ghost wandering in the chaos.” As a complete outsider to the Jingju (also known as Peking Opera) style, the conjuration of chaos in this production was in tension with its performance style in inspiring and delightful ways. After summarizing some of the basic elements on this production, I’ll take this chance to simply meditate on my own experience as a deeply invested outsider to a performance tradition that has adapted a source I am, by contrast, extremely familiar with. Like one of Barnet Newman’s immense, cloud-dark paintings with a single, precise white line passing across it, The Revenge of Prince of Zi Dan produces a looming, abstract sense of chaotic doom out of a minimal set and tightly controlled, physical technique. Also like those Newman paintings, the immense darkness and the tightly controlled passage through it each bring the other into definition and clarity for the viewer, making the power in both manifest as well.
Shanghai Jingju’s production opens with a long duration of darkness in the theater, then two figures on stage, a very minimal set, and a digital display above the stage showing the spoken lines in English. At first I thought these were the two guards that start off Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it becomes obvious as time passes that these are in fact Hamlet and Horatio. The significant majority of the dialog is sung, in the distinct Jingju style, and there is a group of musicians off stage playing constant musical accompaniment. As the opera progresses, it moves through much of the familiar storyline from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with some famous monologues truncated, rearranged in their order, or even combined at times (e.g. it seemed to me that “To be or not to be” had been combined with “How all occasions do inform against me”). Large portions of the Hamlet are skipped over—for example, we go straight from Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, to Polonius telling the King and Queen that Hamlet is mad. All of this was done with discernment, in the service of producing a coherent show that utilized Hamlet as it material.
The role-type tradition in Jingju is very reminiscent of Italian commedia dell’arte, an extremely felicitous parallel with the theatrical tradition behind Hamlet (the character-type based performance style of dell’arte had a strong influence on England’s emerging professional theatre in the early modern period). The ghost, Claudius, and Polonius each felt very much like dramatic types adapted to this particular story—the ghost and Claudius both wearing masks the entire time, for reasons I was both not aware of and very curious about. Ophelia, played by a woman, had a naturalistic sounding voice (relative to this operatic style), whereas Gertrude was played by a man and portrayed with a very high pitched voice that to my ears sounded like a parody. The very useful history of Jingju included in the festival program for this production notes the history of men playing women in the earliest stages of this performance style, so I suspect that what to my untrained ears sounded like a man parodying a woman’s voice was in fact the product of a vocal tradition passed down from its earliest beginnings (but this is again my speculation, reflecting upon my experience as an audience member completely unfamiliar with this style). The virtuoso performance by Polonius highlighted most directly the acrobatic tradition threaded into the other strands making up Jingju. Wearing age makeup and a fake beard, the actor was crouched down on his legs to the point that his knees were against his chest, covered over by his official gown, leaving his feat exposed at the bottom and creating the illusion that he was about one- quarter the actor’s actual height. Simply walking across the stage was a physical feat, performed with mind-boggling naturalness and ease. The production capitalizes on this in maybe my favorite moment in the performance: when Hamlet stabs Polonius, Polonius is given a frenetic, comically extended, acrobatic, Nick Bottom-as-Pyramus-like-death scene that ranged across the stage, and that frankly I never wanted to end. It is difficult to even understand how the actor accomplished it.
The female characters in the play get solo “monologues” that they are denied in Hamlet, giving us time alone with them to hear more of their own thoughts about what is happening to and around them. Gertrude knowingly drinks from the poisoned cup in the final fight scene, which itself features excellent fight acrobatics by Hamlet and Laertes, wearing resplendent ceremonial armor. As someone who has seen so many Hamlets, it was in fact refreshing how quickly we got to the final scene in The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan—the various scene cuts and monologue shrinkages getting us to the end fast.
As an early modern scholar unfamiliar with Jingju, what the concision in the storytelling helped me do was to focus on the feat of the style itself, and its effects on me. The singing style works in a tonal way that was strange at first for my ears, and there was tendency to stretch out words and phrases as they are sung. Everyday physical movements often felt ritualistic, the body’s movements tightly controlled and rigidly, incrementally progressive in a manner that, paradoxically, produced a sense of fluidity much as a role of film in a projector can produce the illusion of movement on a movie screen. The music itself had a “traditional” sound to it for my uneducated ears, but also sounded “upbeat” to me as well. Not comically so, but in the way that a song about heroin addiction by a band like Wilco can be up-tempo—it doesn’t minimize how devastating the lyrics are. That up-tempo feel to the music also helped with the sense of sweeping momentum in the advancing of the plots. The set itself was quite minimal—there were a few set changes, but these were often large abstract compositions. Even when banners were hung or furniture placed on stage, as physical objects they seemed very alone up there on stage, serving as much to highlight the formless void surrounding the lives of these characters as to give a visual anchor for a scene.
When I think back on this production, my memories of the scenes are like Barnett Newman’s Cathedra or Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. A very clearly defined strip or section—on the level of the stage—of brightly lit characterizations produced by intensely refined technique, and a dark cloud of chaos—above the stage—brimming around these characters. Saying that the world is chaos, rather than that the time is out of joint, puts an emphasis on the spatial rather than the temporal—but a space filled with unstructured movement, rather than a time that cannot move properly, maybe at all, because it has been dislocated. The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan’s substitution of this phrase is extremely apt, precisely in terms of the point where form and content intersect in this show. The content of the words in this show conjure a failed civil order, but the physicalization of how these words are expressed is so disciplined (not chaotic) that the contrasts serve to highlight each other—the failed world conjured by the success of a performance style resulting, for this naïve audience member, in one of the best nights he has had in the theater in a long time. My main critique is that they have not come to Chicago more often.
Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.