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The Handan Dream: Bringing a classic Chinese play to the Hackney Empire

A scene from The Handan Dream. Photo: Li Chun Yang A scene from The Handan Dream. Photo: Li Chun Yang
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Producers in London and China have got together to bring the work of Shakespeare’s contemporary Tang Xianzu to the Hackney Empire. They tell Eleanor Turney how such collaborations are a process of discovery for all involved

With the UK boasting one of the largest Chinese populations in Europe, it’s unsurprising that London’s Chinatown hosts the biggest celebration of Chinese New Year outside Asia. This year, to coincide with the celebrations, Hackney Empire is hosting Guangzhou Dramatic Arts Centre’s production of Tang Xianzu’s drama The Handan Dream in the run-up to Chinese New Year in February.

The production, brought to the UK by London-based producing company Performance Infinity, will be the UK premiere of Tang’s play. A Chinese playwright writing at the same time as Shakespeare, Tang is most famous for his quartet of plays known as the Four Dreams of the Jade Tea Hall. This comprises The Peony Pavilion, The Purple Hairpin, A Dream Under the Southern Bough and The Handan Dream.

A scene from The Handan Dream. Photo: Li Chun Yang
A scene from The Handan Dream. Photo: Li Chun Yang

Wang Xiaodi, artistic director of GDAC, a leading producing house in China based in its third largest city, directs this production. GDAC is funded by the local government of Guangdong Province and private sponsors. The funding to bring The Handan Dream to the UK comes directly from the Guangdong government.

“I really want to show Chinese culture to people in the UK, especially nowadays as China is rising,” says Wang. “I want to show how Chinese people communicate with each other through theatre, what they think and what their attitude is. I think that foreign countries would like to know China, and the best way to communicate with them is through this kind of cultural exchange.


Profile: The Handan Dream

Author: Tang Xianzu 
Adaptation: Yu Qingfeng, Qu Zhaojie
Director: Wang Xiaodi
Senior creative team: Li Rayding (costume), Yao Xiaomin (movement), Ji Qiao (set), Dong Weijie (composer)

Senior technical team: He Yang (technical), Xing Xin (lighting)
Producers: Chen Zhirong, Performance Infinity
Run dates: From 2016
Production budget: Approx. 1.3 million yuan (£148,000)

“Understanding between two peoples is a must; Chinese people are eager to understand the Western world through drama. That’s why I think it’s important to bring our work to the UK [and vice versa]. I think all people are eager to explore the lives of other people.”

Joanna Dong from Performance Infinity echoes the importance of cultural exchange, both to the decision to stage this show at Hackney Empire and to her company’s wider work. “Very few Chinese spoken drama pieces are presented in London. The first I know of was Richard III as part of the Globe to Globe festival in 2012,” she says.

“There were a lot of risks, because with a piece in another language – and this was not a short piece – audiences may worry whether they can understand it and whether they will feel culture shock. We feel that’s a challenge this time, too. We think this could be interesting in London, which is a very international city.”

Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Marc Brenner
Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo: Marc Brenner

The piece will be presented in Mandarin with English surtitles, and Dong is excited about the audiences the show might attract: “[Hackney Empire] is very interesting – they are trying to be very close to their local community, and because the community is diverse they have to make a diverse programme.

“They often receive shows from other countries, recently Russia and Hungary. I feel that their diverse audience is relevant to our companies, who focus on presenting Chinese pieces in the UK. When we were approached by our GDAC colleagues, we thought Hackney Empire would be a good place for this show.”

Performance Infinity’s relationship with the venue began two years ago, when chief executive Clarie Middleton spoke as part of a training project for Chinese theatre professionals. Middleton is about to take up a new position as principal of Rose Bruford, and Dong very much hopes “that the new management team will be interested in programming international work. I’m not sure at this stage, but we hope there will be potential to keep the relationship going”.


5 Chinese shows brought to the UK

1. The Peony Pavilion, Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe, Edinburgh Fringe, 2017

2. Green Snake, National Theatre of China, Edinburgh Fringe, 2015

3. Shen Yun Performing Arts, London. Edinburgh and Birmingham, 2018

4. Richard III, Shakespeare’s Globe, part of Globe to Globe in 2012 and performed again in 2015

5. Sink by Lao She, part of the China Changing festival at Southbank Centre, London, 2017

Dong is clear that she and her company don’t choose just any show that approaches them: “We don’t want to present Chinese work as a cultural symbol, we want to present good theatre productions [that happen to be Chinese]. We are Chinese promoters, but alongside that we are also regular theatregoers.

“I have seen many pieces and, for my standards, there aren’t that many high-quality Chinese theatre productions that could be suitable for London. We are trying to discover some new artists, especially emerging artists, from China to see whether their work can be presented. At the moment it tends to be very established companies.”

A scene from The Green Snake

What stood out about Wang and this show? “The relationship we have with GDAC started developing two years ago. They had a season of international shows, and wanted to hear about shows from other countries. We wanted to bring their work to the UK, and we discussed several options. We thought The Handan Dream could be presented internationally and could be appreciated by audiences from other countries,” says Dong.

She adds that female directors are rare in China: “The gender issue is more serious in China than in the UK. Several years ago we worked with a female director, Tian Qinxin, to present Green Snake at the Edinburgh Fringe. Tian is a very famous female director [the youngest director of the National Theatre Company of China].

Showcasing China at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Wang Xiaodi is a female director in China with a very high reputation. So that’s two names. And there are very, very few other female directors who are recognised or even known about by Chinese audiences.

“Wang’s angle is to take a traditional play and present it in a contemporary way, not following traditional routes. She is very open-minded, working with artists from different backgrounds. For example, she works with a fashion designer, Li Rayding [one of the lead costume designers for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing]. She works with different artists, and mixes everything together on the stage like a feast. That’s something I really respect.”

Wang also speaks about the importance of Li’s design to her work: “I think audiences can appreciate the ‘freehand’ style, especially in terms of the stage design. The Chinese art style is very different. Sometimes people think about things as black or white, but actually many things are grey, which is much more interesting.”

Performance Infinity also works with UK companies that want to tour to China, including Theatre Ad Infinitum and Vamos Theatre, a full mask company, which have both presented work at GDAC. “Both are physical theatre companies, so it’s easier to present them in China because there’s no language boundary,” says Dong.

“They were received very well. In general, Chinese audiences are much younger than audiences in Britain. We don’t really have a theatre culture in the older generation because of the influence of the Cultural Revolution.

“Most of the Chinese theatre audience are in their early 30s or late 20s, so many are interested in things related to the internet or technology. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light is a piece based on these ideas, and the show itself is presented in the dark, so people were really attracted by the format.”

What advice would Dong give to other UK companies wanting to take work to China? “I’d say maybe present a classic play – not only Shakespeare but also a work by a contemporary British writer. It might be accepted better by a Chinese audience. If it’s less well-known, people might not want to take the risk that they won’t understand it or that it’ll be about a British political issue with which they don’t feel familiar.

“If the company is presenting something with a unique or special format, for example using technology to present the show, that could be popular in China. That is something we hope to present in the future.”

Profile: Guangzhou Dramatic Arts Centre

Artistic director: Wang Xiaodi
Founded: 1970

Location: Guangzhou, China
Number of productions (2017): 155
Audience figures (2017): 29,630
Number of staff: Approx. 80
Turnover (2017):
4.7 million yuan (£534,000)
Funders: Guangdong Province 
Key contact: Gong Yidan, liaison officer: yidan_g@hotmail.com

The Handan Dream runs at the Hackney Empire, London, from January 25