As a time-honored literary form, plays have a unique source of vitality that derives from the various interpretations at different times and places by different people. Among a multitude of plays, there are classics which have enduring value and become cultural symbols, and performances of them can facilitate the audience’s understanding of the culture behind them, especially when they take place in a foreign context. For Beihang Univeristy, who have been making relentless efforts toward the goal of “building a world-class university rooted in China”, such performances can be a perfect platform for intercultural exchanges and the development of cultural literacy, aesthetic taste and broad horizon in its students. How do foreign classic plays achieve such effects? The following review may provide the answer.
Foreign Theatres on Campus
“And farewell, friends; Thus Thisby ends; Adieu, adieu, adieu!”
This was one scene from the mini drama within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the classic comedies written by Shakespeare and staged by TNT Theatre from Britain at the packed Beihang Sunrise Concert Hall in April 2019. Throughout the performance, the high-spirited audience burst into waves of applause from time to time as they were gradually captivated by the exotic romance.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented by TNT Theatre
An interesting episode during the mini drama was the creative use of boards with keywords written in Chinese to help Chinese audience get the gist of the English lines in the mini drama, which proved to be a much welcomed surprise and source of joy. With these boards bridging the language gap and the psychological distance, the atmosphere in the hall reached a climax when the mini drama came to an end.
Besides A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a number of other foreign classic plays or plays adapted from classics have also been performed successfully at Beihang in recent years. In 2016, Chapterhouse Theatre Company brought Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles to campus. It returned with Wuthering Heights in 2017, when TNT Theatre joined and staged two works of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. The year of 2018 witnessed three performances: Jane Eyre and Sense and Sensibility presented by Chapterhouse Theatre Company and Macbeth by TNT Theatre. The number increased to four when the two theatre companies continued to brought three performances, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Wuthering Heights and Notre-Dame de Paris, and Blackeyed Theatre, a newcomer, visited Beihang Sunrise Concert Hall for the first time with Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four. All of the three theatres are celebrated touring theatres in Britain, and they have many years of experience and the love from audience across the world.
Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles presented by Chapterhouse Theatre Company in 2016
Romeo and Juliet presented by TNT Theatre in 2017
Sense and Sensibility presented by Chapterhouse Theatre Company in 2018
Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four presented by Blackeyed Theatre in 2019
As more foreign theatres choose Beihang as a stop of their tours, Beihangers are also provided with easier access to classics from a different culture. As they appreciate these works closely, they walk into a world that is far from their daily life but actually exists in another part of the Earth and still influences many people, and are moved by things that also touched other people at a different point in the history. Such communication shows the possibility of finding commonalities understanding differences, which is an indispensable quality in the global village.
From Classroom to Stage
Years before TNT Theatre presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comedy was already staged by the Class of 2014 of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences of Beihang University as part of their Graduation Performance of Classic Plays, which was another project for them to finish in addition to the thesis in the final year of their college life.
First proposed in 2012, the Graduation Performance of Classic Plays is a zero-credit compulsory course in which the students need to finish a performance of a classic play from scratch. Everything involved — adaption of the original play, casting, direction, rehearsal, costume, props, stage management, publicity work, etc.—is done partly or completely by the students, and the process can be quite laborious.
“I’ve never gone to bed before 2 o’clock since we started the preparations of the project,” said Li Man, the executive director and props manager of the 2017 graduation performance.
Her classmate Yu Haijie, the costume manager, also felt the pressure. To achieve the best effect on the stage, the costumes were adjusted and even changed over and over again according to the requirements by the director, and she needed to meet these requirements as soon as possible by means of online shopping, clothing rental, DIY and so on. “Anyway, it is my choice, so I must try my best to do a good job,” said Yu Haijie.
A rehearsal of the 2017 graduation performance
Their hard work eventually pays when the Graduation Performance of Classic Plays takes place in May or June, just weeks before the graduation ceremony. Six classes of students have finished the project since 2014, and their success has made the performance part of the repertoire in the graduation season at Beihang University as well as a brand of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences.
All of the classic plays that have been chosen for the project are works of Shakespeare, which are carefully adapted into a Chinese version that can be easily accepted by the audience. Language is one of the key concerns. According to Wang Tiancheng, the student director of the 2019 graduation performance, they strived “to make the unique language style of Shakespeare’s plays more understandable for the audience.” Besides wording, music, dance and other aspects of the performance are also carefully modified by the students to better convey the spirit of Shakespeare’s works to the contemporary Chinese audience, and the Class of 2017 even produced a modern version of Twelfth Night to highlight the vitality, passion, optimism, confidence and loyalty to love and friendship of the contemporary youth. These adaptions both prove the great vitality and potential of the classics and give play to students’ independent thinking and creativity.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented by the Class of 2014
As You Like It presented by the Class of 2015
Othello presented by the Class of 2016
Twelfth Night presented by the Class of 2017
Much Ado About Nothing presented by the Class of 2018
Love's Labour's Lost presented by the Class of 2019
During the Graduation Performance of Classic Plays, the students are provided with the opportunity to improve their abilities in an all-round way and receive a novel form of cultural and aesthetic education. The experience also prepares them better for understanding, communication and expression in a broader context. After graduation, some of them, like many other Beihang graduates, have chosen to study at top universities abroad, such as Cornell University, the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley, Duke University, University College London, and National University of Singapore, enriching their knowledge of the world and serving as bridges between Chinese and other cultures. Walking off the stage of graduation performance, they are now stepping towards the world stage.
Written by Li Mingzhu, Ma Yaping and Ren Chenjie
Designed by Wang Zixuan
Photographs from Beihang News, the WeChat Official Account “Hangxiaobao”, and the WeChat Official Account of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences of Beihang University
Reviewed by General Editorial Office of Official Site (GEOOS)
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