Bard on the Bund: Shakespeare outdoor performances begin in Shanghai
"Tis now the very witching hour of night . . ."
"Hamlet," Act 3, Scene 2
In Shanghai one night this week, Hamlet's soliloquys bewitched audiences as famed Chinese actor Pu Cunxin took the title role in an outdoor performance featuring excerpts from the Shakespearean tragedy.
It was the inaugural performance of Shanghai's new Shakespeare in the Park program, a concept pioneered with great success in New York almost 70 years ago.
Pu, 70, said to have performed in the largest number of Shakespeare's plays in China, appeared for the first time in an outdoor production. He recited "Hamlet" in Chinese translation. The famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy was literally translated as "to live or die, that is the question."
An audience of more than 100 sat on plastic chairs against the backdrop of the old British consulate.
Shanghai's Shakespeare in the Park series has invited troupes from both home and abroad to stage productions of the bard's plays in downtown parks.
Also on the night's entertainment were a light show of classic scenes from Shakespeare displayed on the façade of the 174-year-old former British consulate, a candlelight ballet drawn from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a fashion show featuring Elizabethan costumes.
Xia Feng, general manager of the sponsoring Huangpu Culture and Tourism Group, said outdoor performances are not new in China.
"Both the Western drama and Chinese opera were once performed at amphitheaters," he said. "The program aims to restore the tradition in local parks. Shakespeare in the Park will become an annual event in Shanghai."
The start of the new program comes as China's performing arts is experiencing a strong rebound. In the first quarter of the year, revenue from commercial performances doubled from a year earlier to nearly 5 billion yuan (US$723 million).
Hungry for entertainment after the long period of pandemic restrictions, about 21 million people thronged to performance venues in the January-March period.
The Bard is no stranger to China. The universal appeal of his tales has created a body of enduring enthusiasts, though his verse is often difficult to translate into Chinese.
Translations began in earnest in the early 20th century. The two most celebrated translators were Zhu Shenghao, who nearly finished the complete works before his death in 1944, and Liang Shiqiu, who studied in the US and spent more than 30 years translating the entire Shakespeare oeuvre.
In 2011, then Premier Wen Jiabao, a Shakespeare fan since childhood, visited the Bard's home in Stratford-on-Avon.
It has been almost 150 years since the first Shakespeare's play was performed in Shanghai. In 1879, Briton Elsa May and her American fiancé Boothroyd Fairclough performed "Hamlet" at the Lyceum Theatre. However, the play flopped at the box office because of bad weather and a dearth of foreign residents in the city, according to the English-language Shanghai Evening Courier.
By the end of the 19th century, Shakespearean plays caught on with the public and Shanghai hosted famous foreign troupes, such as the Royal Italian Opera Company, to stage Shakespeare's plays.
Almost every performance was sold out, according to the North China Daily News.
The concept of Shakespeare in the Park was originally conceived by director-producer Joseph Papp in 1954. The theatrical program stages productions of Shakespearean plays at the open-air Delacorte Theater in New York City's Central Park. The idea caught on, and similar programs sprang up in cities across North American, Europe and Australia.
"Shanghai is a center of cultural heritage, and Shakespeare's classics match that international status," said Pu after his "Hamlet" performance.
Pu, who is also the president of the China Theater Association, has been appointed as the chief consultant to the Shakespeare in the Park program.
Following from the "Hamlet" debut, the National Theatre of China and Shanghai Theatre Academy will stage Chinese versions of "The Tempest," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Romeo and Juliet" in Fuxing Park near the Shanghai Concert Hall between May and October next year.