An English-born director, based in Germany, working with a Mandarin-speaking company of actors in Shanghai: Shakespeare has the power to bring them all together. The director in question is Paul Stebbings, founder of TNT (The New Theatre), an influential theatre troupe in its own right, known for its touring shows throughout Europe, South America and Asia. As for the Mandarin-speaking company of actors, they are members Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC), which regularly mounts productions of both Chinese and Western plays. Stebbings and SDAC joined forces under Shakespeare’s banner to create a Mandarin-language version of Taming of the Shrew set in romanticized 1930s Shanghai. The SDAC production, under Stebbings directorship, is fun and light-hearted and proves a fine example of Shakespeare in adaptation and translation.
As the play opens we are introduced to a drunken Christopher Sly character, an oaf, chatting up members of the audience before tripping his way onto the stage—a depiction of one of Shanghai’s many bars. Before he collapses in a drunken sleep, Sly sees the portrait of a beautiful woman in a slim-fitting qipao, a form of dress associated with the glamorous, fast-and-loose society of pre-war (World War II, that is) Shanghai. But as the scene changes we are taken back in time. The woman in the portrait turns out to be Bai Kaili—Katherine—a woman of ferocious temper (indeed, I leaned back in my chair in fright as the actress was so fierce). Her sister, Bai Kai’en (Bianca—‘Bai’ is the family name) is of far sweeter disposition though not without her Machiavellian moments. The male suitors are “translated” as stock characters from Chinese fiction—the old, rich man, the love-struck scholar. Upon Petruchio’s (his name, transliterated, to—if I heard correctly—Pei Xuqiao) entrance (played by the same actor as Christopher Sly), we enter into the main “taming” section. In one scene Pei Xuqiao commands Kaili to walk into the audience and greet a middle-aged man as a meinü—a beautiful young woman. “Your skin is so soft,” Kaili says; this sends the audience into fits of laughter. The taming ends with a straight-forward rendition of Kaili’s/Katherine’s admonishment to the other wives to obey their husbands: she even places her hand under Pei Xuqiao’s/Petruchio’s foot, allowing him to stamp on it if he so chooses (he doesn’t).
If the production had ended there, it would have too easily acquiesced to a deeply misogynistic point of view. From the nervous twitters in the audience, it seemed that they, too, felt uncomfortable and shocked by Kaili’s all-encompassing subservience to her husband. But then the action returns to modern Shanghai and Petruchio-turned-Sly (referred to as datou: Big Head) appears, passed out drunk on the bar floor. He wakes up, stares at the “portrait” of 1930s Kaili in the picture frame, and is immediately interrupted by a shrieking cry from offstage. On tromps Sly’s overbearing wife (one of the male actors, in drag, with massive curlers in his hair) and carts him home; the preceding action had all been the fantastic dream of a hen-pecked husband.
The 1933 Old Millfun (formerly a factory, now a converted arts and dining space) stage is perhaps too large a venue for a show that seems to have been created for a more intimate space. The set is simple, six or so panels on wheels that become the walls of an old lane house or the façade of a modern bar. But while the set is serviceable, the use of props demonstrates creativity and ingenuity. The production, likewise makes much use of music; there is a keyboardist who provides a live score throughout the performance—he’s even worked into the action as a love interest for the soloist. The soloist herself incorporates Chinese melodies such as Haoyiduo molihua and the site-appropriate Ye Shanghai (‘Shanghai Night’). In the translation there’s even some circumspect satire. At one point the phrase hexie shehui (“peaceful society”) is used—it’s a stock phrase common in official pronouncements.
The acting is broad, full of sweeping-stylized gestures; nuanced, it is not—but then it needn’t be: this is comedy, and one of Shakespeare’s more outrageous ones at that. The servants are portrayed clownishly, with masks. Kaili does have one moment of bitter emotion when Pei Xuqiao fails to turn up for the wedding. The SDAC’s Taming of the Shrew does an admirable job of translating Shakespeare to a Chinese context (“Shakespeare with Chinese characteristics”). Shrew’s somewhat stereotyped characters adapt well to a stylized 1930s Shanghai, from which Stebbings draws parallels from China’s own history of literary stereotypes.