UK-born, Germany-based director Paul Stebbings traveled to Shanghai to catch up with his production of Taming of the Shrew, performed by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. The production, performed in Mandarin, sets Shakespeare's comedy in 1930s Shanghai. After the show, I sat down with Mr Stebbings for a brief interview.
Did you find working on a Mandarin production difficult?
Well I’m quite used to working in different languages, which helped. Of course, it’s difficult because of the intonations...but overall it just depends on the quality of the actors and the quality of the institution. [They are] far more important than the complexes of language. As long as I understand what’s going on, and I had a very good translator who trained in America, and when you have good professional actors, it doesn’t matter very much really.
How did you go about casting?
I was a part of the casting, but generally for most of the casting it wasn’t very useful for me being there honestly, since they know their actors better than me.
How did you approach this particular Shrew?
Well I’d done the production in Europe and also in Asia actually. I’d also done it in China in English, so I knew the basic structure worked for a Chinese audience, but I didn’t want to reproduce the production and just put everybody in Western costume, so the idea was to take the central concept and the editing of the European text and the idea of the commedia dell’arte which gives it a quite broad slapstick and stereotypical base, in a Chinese environment specifically 1930s Shanghai, which has the advantage of being a partly Western, partly Chinese historical environment. So I had a lever into it as well: I could offer things I knew quite a lot about—Chinese jazz of the 1930s for example, and then the cast told me about Chinese traditional marriages. So throughout the European marriage, I had a crash course in Chinese traditional marriages and then we threw the slapstick around in it.
It is a very physical production, and you use a lot of music. Why have you chosen to emphasize those elements?
Well, they’re typical TNT [The New Theatre] elements anyway. Shakespeare didn’t have any scenery, but he always had a musician or music in the shows, and there’s a lot of clowning in it. There are even commedia lazzis, which are like classical clown sketches, like beating up your own servant, which are lifted straight out of commedia textbooks. In a way you liberate the play by having the slapstick in it, and the Chinese audience love slapstick anyway, and that is true to the original text, since Shakespeare uses the word ‘Pantalone/pantaloon’ in the original play, which is one of my key starting points. The archetypes work very well with standard Chinese archetypes.