Dr Wang Xiaoying in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Dr Wang Xiaoying is China’s most celebrated director. He is the Vice-President and Artistic Director of China’s National Theatre. He is also the Vice-Chairman of the China Theatre Association.  In 1991 he was admitted as the first doctoral student of drama in China.

His production of Richard III  was staged on 28-29 April 2012 at the Globe Theatre, London, as part of the Globe to Globe 37 Plays 37 Languages. It was a triumph despite the rain and the fact that the container carrying their exquisite set and costumes did not arrive due to the bad weather.

We sat comfortably at Dr Wang’s office at the National Theatre by a low coffee table where Chinese green tea was in constant supply. Communication was made easy with the aid of his interpreter and my companion Ms Cai Yunnan. His candid and informal manner reflected genuine warmth.  His energy and passion for theatre were evident throughout our three-hour meeting.

RJ: Can you recall your earliest aspirations for the theatre?

WX: My passion for the theatre can be traced to my family. My father was in the local opera. He was a good actor.

Dr Wang’s mother was an assistant in the same theatre, and he himself acted before becoming a director.

RJ: What is the very first play you directed?

WX: The first play I directed was The Magic Cube and it was performed in the 1985/6 season.

It was a popular play among the young.  At the time it was very challenging to create such a drama.  . It reflected criticism of what was happening in Chinese society in the mid-1980s, when China was closed to the West.  At the time there was a social taboo on expressing critical views on social matters. The play mirrored issues that concerned the young when China was still a closed society.

The government then controlled many aspects of life; the play touches on and challenges those restrictions. It touches on the impact of years of isolation on the young.  There is symbolism in the play. The scenes implied issues. China had lots of taboos and social restrictions and the play dealt with some of these taboos.

RJ: Why was it called The Magic Cube?

WX: This name is also symbolic. There are nine independent stories with nine styles. Like the magic cube, despite the differences, they join to form a complete unit.

RJ: Who wrote the play?

WX: The playwright was a young college student at Shanghai, his name is Tao Jun.  Tao Jun wrote this play but he did not write the complete script.

When the production moved from Shanghai to Beijing and in December 1985 it was produced by the Chinese Youth Art Theatre under the direction of Mr Wang Xiaoying. They expanded, modified and improved the original script.

Dr Wang did not make direct reference to the then oppressive regime (unless that was lost in translation) but repeatedly emphasised that China of the 1980s was not China of 2012. Then, China was closed to the West and there were deeply embedded taboos on freedom of speech. It is clear that the play dealt with the social effects caused by years of oppression and isolation from the outside world.

Dr Wang likes to combine mainstream drama with experimental theatre. He enjoys experimenting with new ideas and uses traditional Chinese elements to tell the story.

WX: You can see on stage the Peking Opera actors having a dialogue with drama actors. I introduce Chinese painting to describe scenes such as the killing scenes and of course music is very important. I use live music in every production.

RJ: Who influenced your work most?

WX: My professor Xu Xiaozhong had a tremendous influence on me. He is a scholar as well as a famous director. He used poetic language to create theatre and he combined traditional with modern drama . He not only made sure the plot was clear but also used a poetic way to express thoughts, philosophy, and ideas.

RJ: Have any European directors influenced you?

WX: Many Western directors have influenced me including Peter Brook. I cannot point to just one. As a student we studied Russian drama so we studied Stanislavsky and Brecht.

This is a story I cannot resist retelling. Dr Wang asked me if we had time for a diversion and I happily obliged.

WX: A German travel-book writer saw my production of “The Magic Cube” in Beijing. He liked it very much and thought I could benefit from exposure to and study in Germany. He offered to pay for my studies and stay in Germany. He arranged everything but because we did not have telephone or internet we lost all contact. One day when I was checking out of the hotel in a remote province in China I saw that man checking into that very hotel. It was extraordinary. This time we managed to arrange my visit to Germany.

I saw all the classics in Germany. Although the productions were in German and I don’t speak German, I saw some productions many times. I appreciated the interpretation and the depth given to the plays by the directors.

RJ: When did you see your first production of Shakespeare?

WX: It was Richard III.

RJ: Where did you see the first performance of Richard III?

WX: When I was a student I encountered “Richard III”. I also saw it on stage when I was in Santa Barbara, California. It is interesting that the director of that production was the one who recommended me to Dominic (Dromgoole) at the Globe. When I was approached by the Globe I did not know which  plays we would stage.  There are two challenges in performing Shakespeare’s plays: The first is to convey the depth of the character. Then there is the language – Shakespeare was last translated into Chinese in 1940.The challenge of a modern director is to update the language.

We have three translations of “Richard III” but all three were done in the 1940s.

RJ: Is it correct to say that the production is an adaptation of Richard III?

WX: We shortened the play; it is two hours and 10 min. The original is 60,000 words long; it is now only 28,000 words.

RJ: Did you embellish your production with Chinese cultural elements?

WX: We followed the play closely, but at the end when Richmond becomes the king the crowd shout ‘my kingdom for a horse’ to show that Richard III is the embodiment of many future kings/leaders.

RJ: What is Shakespeare’s status in China today?

WX: Shakespeare enjoys a high status in China although he is not as popular today as he was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago there were tremendous transformations in China. China was opening to the world. Some masterpieces were introduced to China. There was also a Shakespeare festival. Now we have more diversified styles and many more plays, so Shakespeare is not centre stage today as he was then. Actually there are fewer performances of Shakespeare, but more visiting productions. More and more foreign productions come to China like The Old Vic production of “Richard III” with Kevin Spacey which was very popular here but only because of Spacey.  People came to see Kevin Spacey not because they know he is a good Shakespearean actor but only because he is a movie star.

RJ: Did you see it?

WX: Yes.

RJ: What did you think of it?

WX: He is a very good actor on stage; better than in movies.

RJ: What did you think of his production of Richard III as compared to the one you saw at Santa Barbara, California?

WX:In California the cast consisted of only three or four actors. The Old Vic production is more mainstream in a Western way. It was very conventional. Spacey’s Richard III is so traditional that there was nothing new in the interpretation of the characters. There was too much focus on Richard III’s deformity.

RJ: Now you tell me about your Richard III; where is the focus?

WX: First I’ll tell you my understanding of Richard III. Whether or not I should direct Richard III as a disabled man really bothered me. Firstly, I do not want to tell the story of only a king in English history. I do not mean to tell the story only about one king in one culture. I will symbolize Richard III as a man with a desire for power, not only a king in English history. In fact there is no document to certify that Richard III was a disabled man. If I want to describe a man with ambition I will not focus on his form but on his thoughts.

RJ: What about the actual Shakespeare texts which clearly indicate that he was deformed?

WX: I direct like this, in everyday life he looks normal. He is like everyone else. But when he has thoughts of killing, he will become deformed by his thoughts of killing and desire for power. It is his mind that becomes deformed. His disability is psychological.

RJ: Did you have a particular leader in mind when contemplating the interpretation of  the character? The photograph in The Globe’s programme shows a character who looks like Stalin.

WX: This is not our stage photo. When we were asked for a picture we did not have production images. This production is not modelled on Stalin or any other tyrant. I do not mean to tell the story of only one king. Everyone in his heart may be tortured by the ambition for power. I do not want to depict one tyrant in history but the universal evil that exists in everyone’s heart.

There are three kings in this play – All three kings look the same.

All leaders are the same – all have the potential to be brutal. Everyone can become Richard III.

RJ: When you directed the play did you have the Western audience in mind?

WX: Yes I took into consideration the Western audience. I want to tell them not just the Shakespearean story but the fact that the desire for power is common to West and East.

Lithography contributes to the sense of fusion. In the backdrop Chinese and English letters are made to look alike. Peking Opera singers are part of the production. As the plot thickens, red and black pigments go through the rice paper adorning the walls.

RJ: Do you feel that Richard of Gloucester is basically someone who improvises his tactics or a man with a strategic mission to carve his way to the throne?

WX: I think his purpose is so clear. Every step is not planned. He has two assistants. When he discovered that they questioned his plan he killed them. His purpose is clear but not the way to achieve it.

RJ: Do you think that the procession of ghosts at Bosworth depicts the presence of some supernatural agency or is a way of depicting Richard’s inward state?

WX:  It is not supernatural but mental reflection in Richard III’s mind. It is a device used to create a deeper understanding of Richard III.

RJ: How free are you to stage a play criticising the government?

WX: May be 20-30 years ago there was a taboo in Chinese society because the government was not as open as today. Today the government does not censor the theatre as before.

RJ: Can you criticise the government for blocking access to some information on internet?

WX: In China we have many plays that reflect social problems. We have the freedom to reflect problems such as corruption, but NOT attack the government. We can raise issues but not attack the government.

RJ: Does the National Theatre help the young attend the theatre by offering tickets at affordable prices?

WX: In China many students go to theatre. We have many projects for the young. Cultural exchanges, training in drama, every summer we sponsor activities for the young which provide facilities for low prices.

RJ: Do you have special prices for something like the National Theatre in England for £10 per ticket?

WX: Yes we have tickets for 200 MB but that is expensive so for students there are tickets at 50 MB.

RJ: Good seats?

WX laughs; It’s understood that these are not such good seats.

RJ: Do you encourage young playwrights?

WX: Yes we encourage them a lot. We have classes where they are taught how to write and construct plays.

RJ: Will you guarantee that www.playstosee.com reviewers will get Press tickets (free tickets) to see and review plays in China?

WX: We would like to cooperate with playstosee.com.

We were offered tickets to see the current production of No Problem with Ants.

There was a great deal more that was said. It was an enjoyable privilege to have met Dr Wang Xiaoying.

Playstosee.com is looking into setting up a network of reviewers in China. We look for keen and talented individuals, enthusiastic about the performing arts and able to write reviews in English and Chinese.

Those interested please get in touch with me via email – rivka@playstosee.com