RSC takes Shakespeare to China

Alex Hassell will be part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's first major tour of China in 2016 - AFP/Getty Images
Alex Hassell will be part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's first major tour of China in 2016 - AFP/Getty Images

William Shakespeare, once banned and denounced under Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, will gain a new Chinese audience in 2016 when the Royal Shakespeare Company embarks on its first major tour of China.

Shakespeare's works were banned in China from 1964 to 1977 and the playwright was denounced as "revisionist, feudalist and capitalist" and now productions of his plays were allowed. But next year, to mark 400 years since the Bard's death, the RSC will take productions of Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in February and March.

Shakespeare is now widely taught in Chinese universities and The Shakespeare Folio Project, a decade-long project to translate Shakespeare's works into Chinese, has begun its pilot phase, working with Chinese translators, writers and theatre producers. "The audience will be sitting on the edge of their seats, genuinely wanting to know what happens next," said Joseph Graves, artistic director of Beijing's University's Institute of World Theatre and Film.

Alex Hassell,  who plays the lead role in the production of Henry V presently playing at London's Barbican Centre, said he was excited at the prospect of performing the play in a context "untethered from its theatrical history".

"The idea that maybe they (the audience) will have no notions at all about what they play is and who the people in it are and what's going to happen would be very cool," he told AFP reporter Katherine Haddon.

William Shakespeare - Alamy
William Shakespeare - Alamy

There is a history of Shakespeare in China. His work was introduced there in the late 19th Century by British missionaries, and a translated version of Charles and Mary Lamb's children's book Tales From Shakespeare in the early 20th Century spread his popularity further. In the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese scholar Zhu Shenghao translated nearly all of Shakespeare's plays and they remained popular until Mao Zedong's ban.

Among the actors travelling to China are Daniel Abbott, Martin Bassindale, Antony Byrne, Emma King, Jennifer Kirby, Antony Sher, Simon Thorp and Obioma Ugoala. Henry V alone requires 72 trunks of costumes and RSC artistic director Gregory Doran has described the company as a "big lumbering ox when it comes into town".

Gregory Doran, RSC Artistic Director, said: “China's rich dramatic heritage mirrors the epic scale, complexity and universality of Shakespeare's work, and has a national curriculum which requires young people to study his plays. I am delighted that we are able to bring our work to new audiences in China.”

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