Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How playing Banquo in China gave me a new love for Shakespeare by Michael Wagg

Every one of the 2,000 small plastic stools was occupied. More students stood behind and perched around the edges of the outdoor stage in front of the sports hall. Stars shone brightly over the South China Sea, and there was a chill in the air. But the cold night was never going to deter these students from a night of Shakespeare at Sun Yat-sen University, Zhuhai.

Our TNT theatre company had been taking Macbeth across China, covering vast distances and playing to similarly vast and mostly youthful Chinese audiences. We played in wildly differing venues, from standard proscenium arch theatres such as the quirky 9 Theatre, Beijing, or the beautiful art deco Shanghai Lyceum; to concert halls – Xinghai in Guangdong province and the spectacularly lit "Bird's Nest"-like Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre; and huge barn-like lecture hall stages at the universities. Just finding the dressing rooms, if there were any, was a baffling exercise – "Actor to Prepare District" was the sign to follow. Wherever we performed there were few empty seats and the most common factor was scale. Everything in China is big. And so much in China is changing.

Everywhere, but particularly in the south, there was a lovely and disarming sense of occasion, often leading to a mild frenzy for our signatures and for photographs. Every student had a smartphone and we were asked to pose for numerous photos. I don't know why they were so sought-after or if these pictures ended up on social networking sites but there were certainly times when the photo seemed to be of more value than the play itself. I wondered if Shakespeare was another western brand among many others for which there was now a growing hunger.

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