To bear witness to Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio’s adaptation of Macbeth is an experience. The production has obvious overtones of Western minimalism but overflows with an aesthetic so distinctly Asian that it sparks the imagination. The Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio are no strangers to Shakespeare: they’ve performed Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, to great acclaim back in Hong Kong. Their Macbeth is a meditative piece of theatre, necessarily concerned with the physical, rather than the linguistic and verbal.
Tang Shu-wing’s production treads a line between the experimental and the traditional, opening a discourse between them. Musician Heidi Wai Yee Chan manages to create a haunting and provocative soundscape with traditional Chinese instruments, such as the dongxiao (vertical flute) and erhu (2-stringed bowed instrument), coupled with other Asian instruments such as the Japanese shinobue (transverse flute) and the Korean buk (traditional drum). The inclusion of the aboriginal Australian didgeridoo, a contemporary 3-stringed zither (made in USA) as well as electronically composed sounds triggered through a laptop computer shattered all pretence of an all-Asian cultural showcase – this Macbeth is interested in the conversation between the old and new, the Orient and the European – the old king Duncan and the new ruler Macbeth. This abstract nature of the play is visible in the production’s various aesthetic choices: Macbeth and his wife are dressed in modern clothing unlike the rest of the court who are in traditional dress, as if to emphasise their otherness. The movements of the troupe recall both traditional Chinese opera and contemporary dance. Ideas of duality – Western and Eastern, old and new, good and bad – are in constant discussion throughout the production. Tang Shu-wing’s Macbeth transcends a singular interpretation or “method” of performing Shakespeare and manages to bring us to a mysterious Chinese landscape whilst offering a well-known story.
Cantonese offers an interesting dimension to the production; the dialect requires the speaker to master 9 different tones. Thus, the lyrical and variety of sounds in Cantonese creates a layered effect. Context and meaning infuse the manner in which a word is pronounced; expression and intonation are key. An actor must become especially attuned to the meaning of his words, intensifying his whole demeanour and offering a dynamism that might be otherwise different. Certainly the troupe from Hong Kong offers a nuanced performance: the feeling with which they infused their dialogue helps build in sound what is lost in words. Rosa Maria Velasco’s Lady Macbeth was particularly moving; she shifts deftly between scorn and intimacy. That being said, meaning is lost: Lady Macbeth’s “Are you a man?” does not quite convey the same emasculating sense in an Asian context, and instead generates laughter for the production’s seeming parody of Asian gender roles. Lady Macbeth occasionally becomes an exasperated housewife in this production rather than the witchy seductress of more traditional productions, recalling China’s long history of powerful empresses.
In taking into account the presence of a non-Cantonese speaking audience, this production manages to exploit the possibilities of what physical theatre can convey; it is more dance than play, an appeal to the eyes rather than the ears. The play is so visual that you might think that words were almost unnecessary. The actors’ movement is deliberate in the extreme, but occasionally it causes the production’s pace to slow down to a near halt. For most of the first half, the stage is empty with only Macbeth to adorn it. Without Shakespeare’s language to occupy, the play becomes tedious and a little boring. This is remedied in the second act where the action becomes heightened and the actors’ physicality become a highlight. Long speeches are shorn where necessary, and it is very effective during Lady Macbeth’s famous spot speech – rather than a long, frenetic soliloquy, we only receive a soft “It won’t wash out.” Shivers.
This production of Macbeth perhaps asks us to question Shakespeare’s relevance and appeal to an audience removed from his context and culture, and language most of all. Shakespeare has enjoyed a strange celebrity in China, first becoming popular during the reign of Mao, then all but erased after the Cultural Revolution. China’s eventual reappearance on the international stage heralded the Bard’s return to the Middle Kingdom. Why does he offer any appeal at all for a country with a rich history of theatre and poetry? One interesting thought is Macbeth’s political resonances: a king anointed by external powers certainly rings a bell with old ideas of Chinese power descending from the heavens. China’s political history is famously turbulent, not so unlike the feudal Scotland of Duncan. Shakespeare’s appeal perhaps stems from the poet’s ability to transcend place and time and history. This production takes on the premise of a dream between a couple, allowing for shifts between the modern and the traditional in a dream sequence that occasionally baffled. But its message was clear: anything can happen with Shakespeare.
A previously published version of this review stated the use of a guzheng and liuqin in the production. This has now been rectified to reflect the correct instruments used in the production. 26 August 2015.