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The RSC’s Adaptation of The Orphan

While the RSC’s predecessors had a limited access to this play from an incomplete translation which inevitably gave rise to misunderstanding and misrepresentation, the RSC were better prepared because they had access to various sources of raw material, such as English translations or videos. Additionally, there are more English academic studies of Chinese opera than there were centuries ago, which would help the RSC to understand Chinese opera’s strangeness. Doran explained his motivation to adapt this play at a conference held at the University of Leeds on March 27th, 2013: the RSC initiated a programme called ‘A World Elsewhere’ to stage foreign classics. One of China’s most famous plays, with a revenge motif shared with Hamlet, The Orphan was chosen by the RSC. To make their production more Chinese, the designer and director conducted one week of fieldwork in China,[1] and the whole team studied this play and Chinese history, with assistance from Chinese scholars in the UK. The intention to preserve ‘Chineseness’ was manifest. In an interview published on the RSC’s website, James Fenton (Royal Shakespeare Company 2012b), playwright of this adaptation, claimed that despite cultural differences, he managed to preserve cultural ambiguities in the play for an original flavour. In total, the ‘Chineseness’ in the RSC’s mind was, firstly, visual verisimilitude. This included rituals, rites, costumes, weapons, stationery, furniture, and herbal medicines, which struck a spectator immediately as parts of ancient China. Secondly, ‘Chineseness’ lay in ancient Chinese politics and philosophy: namely, how and why a group of people would sacrifice their lives for a baby, which was rooted in socio-cultural specificities elusive to the RSC.

The next section is going to demonstrate that despite visual semblance, socio-cultural divergences from China were no less prominent than white actors’ and actresses’ fair skin, blond hairs and British accent. Differences are common in intercultural adaptation, yet it is more important to uncover the mechanism underneath.

  • [1] According to the RSC’s blog ‘In Search of the Orphan,’ in July and August 2012 the directorand the designer went to an antique market, visited the Ding Ling Tombs, The ForbiddenCity, The Valley of the Mings, Shanghai Jingju Company, and a traditional garden and a teahouse. See Royal Shakespeare Company (2012a).
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