Language. It’s one of the big reasons that Shakespeare has stood the test of time. Applauded by theatre lovers, maligned by teenagers at A-level, the Bard’s words and phrases still pretty the English language today. So what happens when that language is replaced by an alternate on stage?
We’re about to find out: prominent local director Tang Shu-wing is about to stage a Cantonese version of Macbeth. He admits putting the play on is no easy task, especially in a language so far from its original, but Tang is no stranger to the Bard or the challenge of translating his words. He previously directed Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, which was performed at London’s Globe theatre in 2012, when 37 of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in 37 different languages as part of the British capital’s Olympic celebrations. Last summer, Tang was invited back to the Globe to premiere this version of Macbeth.
Macbeath is the shortest of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It tells the story of how Macbeth, a Scottish army general, meets three witches who promise that he will become king. Consumed with power and ambition, Macbeth plots with his wife, the Lady Macbeth, and then kills the sitting King Duncan to take his throne. It is a famously difficult work to stage especially when you include the question of translation. Cantonese has its own rhythms and tones, and how dialogue is used affects how the audience relates to the play as a whole. “If it’s too remote, it’s too difficult to receive,” says Tang. “If it is too colloquial, it is too close. People pick at it. They say, ‘We wouldn’t say that.’”
The director worked with a translator direct from the original language as well as from modern texts to form the Cantonese script. About half of the words changed as the actors developed lines during rehearsals. The result, when the play is performed at the Hong Kong Art’s Festival this month, will be something that shifts between old and new verbiage, never swaying too far to one side or another.
This version of Macbeth leaves Scotland far behind. Instead, Tang takes a modern day Cantonese-speaking couple and transplants them, through a shared dream, into a haunting, ancient China, where historically dressed figures roam a strange land, often in slow motion. As the dream unfolds, the modern-day characters become Macbeth and his Lady.
Rosa Maria Velasco appears vibrant and young as Lady Macbeth, at odds with the mature figures more traditionally cast. Tang says he wanted an actor that could be physically and mentally open. “I needed somebody open to more possibilities, not fixed in her interpretation of the character,” he says.
Ng Wai-shek plays Macbeth; he previously played Titus Andronicus for Tang. “He has something between a virtuous good guy and a bad guy in his appearance and temperament,” says Tang. Macbeth is not just a bad guy, he says. “An actor playing him requires an enormous capacity to express and feel the inner side of the character. You need a mature man to play that.”
Tang has a reputation for being a minimalist director. He says reducing the play to its core elements works particularly well with something as epic as Macbeth, however impossible this sounds. “I asked myself, ‘What is the real necessity on stage?’” he says. “For me, it’s the actors.”
As performers explore the play’s themes of power and psychological darkness, Tang’s actors display movement and imagery as a powerful second language. Audiences are asked to ponder the possibilities of the couple as they transition from “real” to “acted” characters. Dramatic use of slow-motion shifts perception of time and place while, at the same time, asking the audience to step back and view them as performers at work.
Elsewhere, clever choreography plays up tensions, vivid dreamscapes fire the imagination and evocative music by Leung Wai-ngok all help capture the essence of the story just as much as the spoken word.
These methods allow Tang to do away with much of the language. Ten years ago, when Tang staged Hamlet, he was faithful to every page, resulting in a production three and a half hours long. In a re-run six months later, he cut it to make it more palatable. When Macbeth at the Globe was required to come in at under two hours, he didn’t hesitate in editing. Moving elements of the play around and disposing of others can feel liberating, he says.
But Tang is never dismissive of the language. Edits can only happen after cross-examining the text and asking and re-asking questions of it. “Shakespeare’s power is through his lines,” says Tang. “Behind every scene, behind every line there is psychology. If you can discover the psychology, you can discover the dramatic tension and you can cut ten lines down to one line and it will present the power. You stage the spirit of the scene, not the literal words.”
Some pinnacle moments in the play, such as the scene where three murderers kill Banque but let his son Fleance escape, become non-verbal. Other scenes are actually fleshed out and added to. Watch the play now and nobleman Macduff appears in certain scenes where he did not originally appear. The ghost of Duncan, King of Scotland, appears at one point, which Tang says is necessary to strengthen the production’s poetry and imagination.
Doubters may scoff, but Tang’s pared back sensibility gained positive reviews in London. One teacher at the Globe, after watching the dress rehearsal, called Tang a visual genius. “Well, she may have been boosting me a little bit,” he says of the praise. “But I understand why she might feel that.” A switch from verbosity to linguistic austerity can actually illuminate hidden things in the play, casting familiar scenes with a new sensibility.
Macbeth in old Canton is a million miles away from its original Scottish setting, but Tang wanted to explore the play’s relevance for Hongkongers today. He says that the piece will be particularly relevant to those living here, addressing prominent topics, although precisely what, he is not willing to share.
One thing is clear: language can be both a barrier and bridge. An English-speaking audience member’s enjoyment of it may come down to how open they are to seeing traditional lines change, says Tang. Translating Shakespeare’s literal poetry is futile. “All you can do,” he says, “is translate a sense of that poetry.”
Macbeth plays at City Hall from 16 March to 20 March, 2016. Click here for more information.