Director's license gives us a unique Hamlet

In an illustrious career spanning six decades, 80-year-old stage director Chen Xinyi has directed about 120 plays, including Shakespeare's "Othello."
Ti Gong

Chinese actor Tong Ruixin (center) plays Hamlet in the new production of the Shakespearean tragedy at the Shanghai Grand Theater.

To be or not to be? That is the question not only for Hamlet, but also for director Chen Xinyi, who staged the popular Shakespearean tragedy at the Shanghai Grand Theater last week.

“‘Hamlet’ is one of the most powerful and influential works in literature, and it’s probably a long-chased dream for each stage director,” Chen says. “So sacred that I did not dare touch it until I was 100 percent I was ready to present it."

The play will be presented at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on December 15.

The 80-year-old, silver-haired “godmother of the China stage” had been leading up to that moment in a stage career spanning 60 years.

“I didn't want to merely ‘translate’ the play,” she says.

Rather, she sought to interpret what she identified as almost 40 different themes in “Hamlet.” It resulted in a highly original production.

The curtain goes up on a nighttime scene amid gunfire and bombing by invading Japanese troops. Zhu Shenghao (1912-44) sits at a table amid a pile of papers, working on a Chinese translation of “Hamlet.” He is dying of tuberculosis after translating 31 of Shakespeare’s plays in his short life.

The scenes on stage shift between two time frames as the lives of Zhu and Hamlet unfold and to some degree intertwine.

“There is a subtle connection and a sharp contrast between the two,” Chen says. “Zhu was ill and weak, but he had inner strength that kept him going, even under constant bombardment. Hamlet was a noble prince, perfect in a physical sense, but he was weak and fragile of mind.”

Zhu’s homeland under siege and the murder of Hamlet’s father form the two motifs that form the structure of the production.

“Noble or humble, virtue or evil ─ the characters in the play inspired and invigorated me,” Chen says. “Their fates were a journey for me to discover my own inner world.”

In an illustrious career spanning six decades, Chen has directed about 120 plays, including Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Her productions have also brought to the stage Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy of the 2nd century BC; Shang Yang, who laid the framework for the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) to conquer all of China and unite the country for the first time; and the great Peking Opera artist Mei Lanfang (1894-1961).

“These are people who helped build a splendid civilization,” Chen says. “The human being is great, but human life is so short. For my entire life, all my energy has been directed to only one thing ─ stage drama.”

Chen always seeks a meaning of life in creating characters for the stage. In a sense, she has also sought her own raison d’etre.

Ye Chenliang / Ti Gong

Chen Xinyi, 80, has an illustrious career spanning six decades.

On the night when Chen was born in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, in 1938, her unmarried mother tried to kill herself by swallowing a golden ring. Chen’s father was a high-ranking official of Kuomintang and their love affair was taboo at the time. When Chen was only eight months old, her mother abandoned the child and fled to Beijing.

Chen’s early years were spent with her father, though the odium of being a bastard child always hung over her. Perhaps that background may explain why she grew up as a bold, independent woman, craving recognition and respect.

When she was 11, the People’s Republic of China was founded and her father fled to Taiwan. But Chen insisted that she wanted to stay on the Chinese mainland and look for her mother. Two years later, she was admitted to the Xi’an Opera Academy.

In her teenage years at the school, she did part-time work printing scripts for dramatists. By reading the plays, the young Chen became obsessed with the stage.

During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), she was denied admission to the Central Academy of Drama because of her father’s background. The turning point in her life came in 1978, when the then 40-year-old Chen was finally admitted to China’s best drama school. It fulfilled a lifelong dream.

“For the first time, I felt dignity,” she says.

Chen’s career achievements read like a drama, with all the twists and turns of destiny. Her dramas reflect the prevailing mood of the times in which they were produced.

“How to select a play, adapt a script and present it in an acceptable form were my concerns,” she says. “If it were not for the hardships of the first half of my life, I would not have been able to interpret them the way that I did.”

When she directed the play about Shang Yang, she was moved by the man’s courage in advocating that all people, no matter how noble or humble, were equal. In the end, he was torn to death by five horses.

Before staging an opera about Zhang Qian, she followed the diplomat’s footprints across thousand miles of desert along the old Silk Road.

And when directing the play “King of Xia,” Chen didn’t stereotype Li Yuanhao (1003-48) as a bloody tyrant. Rather, she went to Helanshan Mountain in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to “get closer to him.” After months of study and field trips, she portrayed the Xia king as a romantic who loved poetry.

“I put my understanding and personal interpretation into plays and characters,” she says. “I hope in that way to provoke audiences to think. I love the stage so deeply. It's a holy place for me, where I can see human weaknesses and strengths, evil and kindness, complexity and purity. To some extent, I'm not directing. I am searching for the meaning of life.”

Ti Gong

The new version of "Hamlet" will be presented at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on December 15.

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