To be or not to be: a noble Chinese Hamlet
In August, the Shanghai Peking Opera Company will be in Denmark for outdoor performances of the operatic version of “Hamlet” in the country where Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is set.
It’s a fitting visit not only because of the stage locale at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, but also because Denmark premiered the first overseas performance of the Peking Opera’s “Hamlet — The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan” in 2005.
Reprising the title role is veteran Hamlet Fu Xiru.
“Everybody is excited about going back to where we started,” says Fu, 37.
Fu has been playing Hamlet for 12 years. He attributes his success to relentless practice and a willingness to try new concepts.
“In my world, there is nothing you cannot conquer with sufficient practice, and there is nowhere you cannot go as long as you don’t limit yourself,” he says.
Those beliefs propelled him from a backstage musical accompanist with the troupe to lesser stage roles, and then finally to Hamlet.
Fu and the troupe have been thrilling audiences around the world with the Chinese interpretation of the Shakespeare classic.
In this version, the characters have been renamed and the story’s location has been reset to an imaginary ancient city in China, but the revenge motif remains at the heart of the drama. And, yes, the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy is still intact.
The Shanghai troupe has taken the production to more than 10 countries and regions in the past 12 years, including Germany, Spain, France and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where it won the Herald Angel Award.
Fu is proud of the production.
Born in Shandong Province, Fu’s father was a musician accompanist with Peking Opera. His talent for music and performance was first revealed at age 6, when he sat at the family dinner table and mimicked his father’s fiddle playing.
“At first, my father had no plans to teach me to be a professional accompanist; he showed me how to play just to feed a young boy’s interest,” Fu says. “Surprisingly, I turned out to be really good at it.”
At the age of 8, Fu appeared on stage at Shandong Province’s Spring Festival Gala Show, and at 10 he became the youngest champion among non-professionals at a national Peking Opera fiddle competition.
A year later, he was recruited in the performer class at the Shanghai Traditional Opera School. Inspired by martial arts stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, he wanted to become a performer.
“All I could think of is how cool it would be on stage, doing brilliant somersaults and wielding weapons in a dazzling manner,” says Fu. “But, of course, achieving that dream was beyond the comprehension of an 11-year-old boy.”
Though gifted with melodic accuracy, Fu had never been trained in body flexibility, which is required for traditional opera performers. Fu could hardly bend his leg to a 90-degree angle with his upper body, while fellow students could manage 160 degrees.
“It hurt my legs and, worse, my self-esteem,” says Fu. “But I was not worried. It is a tradition in my family to believe that practice can overcome obstacles. If I can’t manage something in 10 tries, then I will make it 100 tries.”
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Fu simply refused to give up. And soon his physical flexibility was the best in the class.
At age 13, just when he was starting to get minor stage roles, he lost his normal voice.
“Voice change happens to every boy,” he says. “The lucky ones may regain their voices within months. I didn’t fully regain mine until I was 26.”
Faced with a disappointing reality, Fu put more effort into martial arts roles, or wusheng, under the tutelage of Wang Mengyun.
“She told me that I should not be too obsessed with what I could not change,” he says. “Since I was already quite physically flexible, it was a good chance for me to focus more on martial arts roles.”
The fates were to test his resilience once again. At age 15, Fu was diagnosed with a severe lumbar disc protrusion, which compressed the nerves of his back and legs.
“No more stage, no more training,” he says. “I had to be careful even when sleeping or sneezing. It was like a death sentence for a Peking Opera performer, but I chose not to give in.”
Determined to get back to stage again, Fu tried various treatments, including Western and traditional Chinese medicine, and also a bone-setting therapy. Nothing seemed to work.
The family credo came back to save him. Practice. Practice. Practice. Doing 200 back muscle exercises every day, Fu gradually regained full control of his back and legs. Meanwhile, he kept on with his operatic studies.
Hamlet became his savior role. At age 24, while touring Japan, Fu received three e-mails, some listing him in a new “Hamlet” role; some not. He suffered three sleepless nights of excitement mixed with frustration. The final e-mail was positive.
“It was just like a dream for me to get the leading role of a completely new play,” he says. “I joked with one of the decision makers, asking whether my good looks had landed me the role. He told me that it was my melancholy, ‘out-of-place’ presence on stage that cinched it.”
Fu says the East-meets-West nature of the Chinese “Hamlet” production works well.
“There is a huge difference between Western theater and traditional Chinese opera,” he says. “While Western theater emphasizes ‘flesh and blood’ experiences, traditional opera attaches more importance to beautiful presentation. When I portray a particular character on stage, it is a display of a kind of aesthetics.”
On stage, the traditional skills of singing, dialogue, acting and acrobatic combat are required. That is the basis for the Peking Opera version of “Hamlet,” director Shi Yukun explained to Fu at the start.
Yet, Hamlet presents a much more complicated character than any existing role in Peking Opera.
“Sometimes, he is a nice gentleman. Sometimes, he is a hysterical psycho,” says Fu. “Then he becomes an unfeeling killer. Hamlet cannot be portrayed simply by any one stylized performance method. We had to ‘break the rules’ to perform it.”
That proved somewhat difficult for some veteran Peking Opera performers, for whom stylized performances were deeply ingrained. But Fu was ready to take on the challenge.
“I hardly ever say no to the directors because I don’t restrict my acting,” he says. “As long as it fits the character and touches the audience, it is always worth a try.”
A trial performance of “Hamlet” at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai was not particularly successful. Some in the audience couldn’t help but laugh at Shakespeare’s dialogue sung to Peking Opera music.
But the overseas premiere in 2005 at Kronborg Castle in Denmark won huge applause, with all tickets to the five performances sold out.
“Probably thanks to the language barrier, the audiences were more obsessed with the music and stage arts — the changing percussion, the dazzling martial arts and delicate costumes,” says Fu.
Despite rain during one outdoor performance, none of the audience left, Fu recalls.
His portrayal of Hamlet has grown from strength to strength during nearly 100 performances.
“Hamlet has become a close friend and an obligation for me,” says Fu. “Every step he takes always leads to more overseas residents becoming familiar with Peking Opera as a traditional Chinese art. And that is simply beautiful.”