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The Chinese Hamlet: The Orphan of Zhao

We interview acclaimed British poet James Fenton on his work adapting the first ever Chinese play produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company


The Chinese Hamlet: The Orphan of Zhao

We interview acclaimed British poet James Fenton on his work adapting the first ever Chinese play produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company


“To right an injustice, no sacrifice is too great.” While this concept doesn’t quite sit right with our modern sensibilities, it’s the underlying theme of the Chinese play “The Orphan of Zhao”  ( 赵氏孤儿), the origins of which can be traced back to 600-500 B.C.

Perhaps surprisingly given its venerable heritage, the play continues to captivate audiences here in modern-day China. I first became aware of the piece while trawling the Web for performances I could catch during my short stay in Beijing. In a moment of serendipity, I discovered The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) had a Western opera adaptation of the original play, running from Sep 6-9, which had garnered rave reviews when it premiered in 2011.

Likened to “Hamlet” by critics, I wondered before the performance how the obscure Ji Junxiang, who the “The Orphan of Zhao” is often attributed to, could be compared to Shakespeare. Or if the themes which run throughout “The Orphan,” like Shakespeare’s much loved plays, transcended culture and time?

The plot revolves around the eponymous orphan Zhao and his quest to take revenge on behalf of his people, after he discovers upon coming of age that the tyrant who raised him was responsible for the deaths of his entire clan.

While such a simplistic and bloody plot device may seem incongruous with the complexities of modern theater, I could easily see why the tale has intrigued generations of Chinese, and indeed why it became one of the first Chinese plays to be translated in the West (in an adaptation by Voltaire) and more recently even inspired Chen Kaige to produce his award-winning 2011 film, “Sacrifice”.

However, my curiosity was truly piqued when I discovered that Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), wanted to include “The Orphan of Zhao” in the “A World Elsewhere” season, running this November in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford.

It was one thing, coming to understand how such an ancient story remained popular amongst Chinese theater goers, it was quite another picturing how Doran ( Director) and James Fenton (Script Adapter) could overcome the inherent tensions involved in putting on a Chinese play for a largely British audience. I simply could not picture how a Western audience would respond to the inherent “Chineseness” of “The Orphan.”

In a quest to find out more about the project and its inspiration I arranged a phone interview with James Fenton himself to find out more:

Lara Owen: Obviously the themes which the Orphan deals with: justice, righteousness, sacrifice and friendship etc. are very old- fashioned and perhaps only make sense in the context of the time. How do you think a Western audience will respond to your treatment of such raw themes?

James Fenton: The idea of a survival of a clan isn’t particularly immediate to us, so what you do is you aim to present an unfamiliar situation but show how it works out. At any point in the play the actual dilemma of the characters on stage will be one which is very comprehensible, not just in terms of plot but in terms of psychology as well.

LO: Classical Chinese plays are in fact a type of poetry. Is your adaptation in verse? In what way did you manage to express the original Chinese essence of poetry in your adaptation?

JF: The very earliest version of the play has arias, which the author gives to the characters as a means of explaining their situations. So the idea of having music in the play goes back a long way. What I thought was I’m going to have songs, by writing them I will try to set not only the situation and the atmosphere but also the idiom for the writing. I wrote one song to begin Act 1, end Act 1, begin Act 2 and end Act 2.

LO: How will your adaptation relate or depart from the many Chinese adaptations of the story already out there? 

JF: It’s not like Peking Opera and it’s not like the movie “Sacrifice.” It will have Chinese costumes, though it’s much more like what Brecht did with Chinese drama, it’s an epic tale which has very wide scope.

It remains to be seen if the cast will be able to pull off performing a much loved Chinese classic as a “living story.” However, in my eyes it seems such an exchange of dramatic styles and practices can only be positive. Both Doran and Fenton have demonstrated their commitment to finding out more about China. Fenton has thoroughly immersed himself in “The Book of Songs,” the earliest known collection of Chinese poetry that includes works from as long ago as the 10th century B.C., as well as the classical Chinese poetic idiom. For their parts, Designer Niki Turner and Director Gregory Doran completed a whirlwind research trip in China, which included a trip to Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market to pick up some props.

During their first week of rehearsals, the cast spent some days in workshops under the guidance of Dr. Li Ruru, an expert on Shakespeare in China and daughter of a great star of Peking Opera and stepdaughter of the playwright Cao Yu. There they learned about concepts and basic movements related to the song-dance theater of some indigenous Chinese groups.

The stage is set and we only have a month to wait and see how all the hard work translates for the audiences in Stratford. I for one can’t wait.


Royal Shakespeare Company actors improvise from a classical Chinese poem