Benedict Cumberbatch plays Hamlet at the Barbican Theater in London (COURTESY OF NT LIVE IN CHINA)
When Zhang Yifan enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing to start his master's degree, he was given a set of textbooks containing a number of the world's classic dramas. There were four plays by William Shakespeare among them—Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Twelfth Night.
"I had watched different performances of Hamlet and had even taken part in an informal performance in college, but I had always wanted to watch a performance by a British theater group to see how a director and actors from Shakespeare's home country interpreted this classic. Shakespeare will be the master of drama forever." Zhang's wish was soon to be fulfilled.
A live broadcast
As one of the top events planned during the 2015 China-UK Year of Cultural Exchange, the National Theater Live (NT Live) first came to China in 2015. NT Live was launched in London in June 2009 and has set out to broadcast National Theater productions to audiences around the world. Every live performance is filmed, featuring close-ups as well as camera sweeps that cover the entire stage, offering its viewers an enhanced experience.
Since June 2015, NT Live in China has shown over 10 British theatrical productions in more than 20 cities throughout the country. It has toured top-tier metropolises on the Chinese mainland such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The program has expanded to some cities in Taiwan as well. In Beijing, more than 150 screenings of the plays have been held, accounting for 45,000 views at the Beijing People's Art Theater, Peking University Hall, China Film Archive and two other cinemas.
"NT Live in China is a cooperative project co-presented by the National Theater of China and the British National Theater. From our perspective, we want the project not only to cover big cities with booming markets, but also to bring first-rate productions to cities like Wuhan and Suzhou, which are covered by few touring international theater groups," said Li Zongzhou, general agent of NT Live in China.
Since 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, to salute the master, NT Live in China introduced three of Shakespeare's four great tragedies—Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. "I was so excited when I received the news that I could watch an authentic British version of Shakespeare's works in Beijing," Zhang said.
"It was not easy to get a ticket," Zhang claimed. "Even after all the tickets sold out, a lot of people waited, hoping that somebody would return their tickets." According to Zhang, one of the reasons why the tickets were selling like hot cakes was the large number of Juan Fu fans in China.
Juan Fu is British actor Benedict Cumberbatch's nickname in China. Cumberbatch was given the pet name because of the curly locks—juan in Chinese—he sported in the TV series Sherlock, wherein he played the famous detective. Fu refers to the shortening of the name Holmes in Chinese, and also means "lucky."
The three-part series set in the present day and screened in 2010, 2012 and 2014 won Benedict legions of fans all over the world. Cumberbatch's profile has grown since Sherlock, but he has nonetheless chosen to return to the stage to play Hamlet, a role he had always wanted to enact.
When asked why he wanted to play the role, he said it was because of his "age, life experience, [and] most importantly, the opportunity to bring to a new audience a 400-year-old piece of brilliance and to try and make Shakespeare as relevant now as he has been."
The interview with Cumberbatch was also aired through NT's live recordings. "I think everybody has a 'Hamlet' in them. There is universality to the challenge of him. It means it's a role that fits any actor," he said.
The whole play and the characters were set in a contemporary environment. When Hamlet appeared in modern clothes, it may have thrown the audience off at first, but as the royal family began appearing in suits, people began to understand the director's intentions. Perhaps Lyndsey Turner, the director, thought the incidents in Hamlet's story could occur at any time and be understood by people of any age.
Daily Mail, a British newspaper, commented that Cumberbatch's "Hamlet in a hoodie was electrifying" and that his acting "veered from moments of genuinely hilarious comedy to plunge down to the very depths of throat-scalding tragedy."
"In Benedict's interpretation, I saw a sublime prince who pushed love away to pursue an inexplicable goal," Zhang said after watching the play at the China Film Archive. "The high-definition shooting allowed me to see a lot of details, even though I could only follow the camera and missed the full stage. It was still a wonderful experience, and most importantly, I watched a modern British Hamlet in Beijing."
Richard III is staged by the National Theater of China in Beijing on April 23 to commemorate Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago (XINHUA)
The road ahead
One of the problems regarding broadcasting NT Live abroad is manifested through the need to provide accurate subtitles. Though professional audio recording technology ensures that every word on stage is audible, audiences in non-English-speaking countries still need subtitles to understand the plot.
"Most of the subtitle translation used by NT Live was done in the UK by an authorized agent," said Li. "Technology-wise, it is more convenient to complete subtitle translations and timeline production in the UK, but from this year, especially after the Beijing International Film Festival in April, we are trying to find professional translators to work on the translations so that the dialogue is much more accessible to the Chinese audience."
NT Live in China is a long-term program, though its Shakespearean season lasted until April. From May, a series of comedies will be shown, and Shakespeare's As You Like It is included in the list. From July, NT Live in China will begin its second-year plan, aiming to show more British theatrical performances to audiences in different cities throughout China.
The National Theater of China, one of NT Live's production partners in China, has realized the promotional effectiveness of NT Live. It is now planning to record productions of Chinese drama with the help of excellent technology and broadcast them worldwide.
Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan
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