To the sound of strident percussion and martial music, an army emerged onto the stage in a swirl of colourful costumes and flags. The soldiers and generals with their elaborate acrobatic movements drew the audience’s attention to the entrance of Ma Pei, the Chinese Macbeth in the 1986 version. In Chinese productions of the play Macbeth’s entrance is always accompanied by the sound of percussion.
Few transformations of Shakespeare seem to Western eyes as extreme as the transfers into Chinese theatre. Strikingly, most Shakespeare performances in mainland China are of the comedies and romantic plays. Among the few Shakespeare tragedies ever staged, Macbeth has been by far the most performed. The predominant mode for staging Shakespeare is huaju, or spoken drama, a theatrical form devised at the beginning of the twentieth century on the basis of the Western dramatic tradition. However, among the nine mainland Macbeth productions, only three are spoken drama (including a radio play), while six are adaptations into different genres of the traditional Chinese music theatre.
The first spoken drama Macbeth, Huang Zuolin’s 1945 production entitled The Hero of the Turmoil, was an adaptation into an episode from Chinese history. By contrast, the 1980 Macbeth staged by a Moscow-trained director, Xu Xiaozhong, used Stanislavski’s Method and a straight translation of the play, together with costumes and make-up (including wigs, prosthetic noses, false eyelashes and blue colour on the eyelids) that were deliberately aimed at presenting an exotic medieval Scottish setting to the Chinese audience.
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