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Shakespeare on the Chinese stage

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

08:53, May 22, 2012

The Bard's presence is taken for granted, but his appeal needs to be fine-tuned to click with a local audience inundated with rapidly growing offerings of stage works.

There are two things that stand out in Propeller's upcoming tour to China. One is Henry V and The Winter's Tale are not among the most familiar repertory pieces to Chinese theatergoers. Second, the all-male cast from the UK-based theater company has a curiosity factor that will more likely win nods of approval than glowers of contempt.

In the old days, Peking Opera did not permit women performers, possibly to shield women from unwanted attention. Cross-dressing roles have been a fixture in Chinese entertainment, which diminished with women's liberation but have recently made a sporadic revival.

Shakespeare has always been a larger-than-life figure in China. Ever since a student body put on The Merchants of Venice in Shanghai in 1902, Shakespeare has graced Chinese stages with a special magnetism.

When I was in college (in the early 1980s), my first big-ticket purchase was a Chinese translation of all of Shakespeare's works. It was 11 volumes.

Before the age of online bookstores and delivery, I had to lug the bundle all the way to the dorm. After many moves, I still have the whole collection.

Most of the plays in that set were translated by Zhu Shenghao, a linguistic genius who toiled under the most difficult situations to render Shakespeare accessible to the Chinese-reading populace.

Fires from the Japanese invasion destroyed some of his manuscripts, and poor health hindered him from finishing his self-designated mission. He was only 32 when he died in 1944, leaving behind 31 translated plays.

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