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Review: Li Liuyi’s Hamlet breaks tradition but honours the richness of the original

Beijing director Li Liuyi's takes on William Shakespeare's celebrated revenge-tragedy, in Mandarin.

THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK

Beijing Li Liuyi Theatre Studio
Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts
Esplanade Theatre

To soliloquy or not to soliloquy? That is the question for Beijing director Li Liuyi’s Mandarin take on William Shakespeare’s celebrated revenge tragedy Hamlet.

“To be or not to be” is a speech so iconic that it can often overshadow the scene it is in.

Li makes the bold choice of not only diluting this existential soliloquy, but also mixing it in counterpoint with the speech of Ophelia, Hamlet’s hapless lover, bemoaning how he has changed.

This is a play that foregrounds relationships.

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Li’s Hamlet is magnificent. At more than three hours long, it is also something of a marathon. The test is whether you can make five acts of one man’s indecision compelling – this play passes with flying colours.

Michael Simon’s stunning set, with arresting, almost cosmic lighting by Deng Wen, turns and tilts ominously, conveying the “out of joint” atmosphere of a Denmark deranged.

Above it hangs a great silver sphere of tangled metal, like the “nutshell… of infinite space” that Hamlet speaks of. A clear visual metaphor for emotional baggage, the sphere follows him around the set and, at times, lowers itself as if to crush him.

The cast navigates the stage’s constant shifts in William Chang’s rustic, sweeping costumes with long trains, accompanied from the sidelines by the eerie shriek and whine of a jinghu, a bowed string instrument, and the haunting vocals of singer Jiujiu, the 17-year-old daughter of the two leads.

Hu Jun is a commanding presence as the Prince of Denmark, racked by indecision over how to kill his uncle Claudius, who murdered his father – both played by Pu Cunxin in a canny, but unshowy performance.

Best known in the mainstream for his roles in blockbuster action films such as Red Cliff (2008) and Bodyguards And Assassins (2009), Hu brings a brooding, martial presence to the character, which comes to the fore in the finale’s thrilling sword fight.

Yet he also displays unexpected comic chops in scenes such as when he pretends to be mad and needles bumbling old courtier Polonius (a very droll Li Shilong).

Keeping it in the family

But he is more than matched by actress Lu Fang, his wife in real life, who plays both Ophelia and Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude, now married to Claudius.

Lu uses no obvious tells in distinguishing the two characters – neither costume changes nor tone of voice – yet her performance is so masterful that one can tell which one she is even if she is simply walking across the stage.

At times, she plays both characters in the same scene, shifting in a heartbeat between innocence and worldliness, maidenhood and maternity.

Having Gertrude and Ophelia played by the same person introduces shades of irony into some of Hamlet’s lines, especially his harping on the “incestuous sheets” of his mother’s remarriage to his uncle.

There are clear parallels in the way he treats both Gertrude and Ophelia, which is to say obsessively and borderline abusively.

The play is attuned to the turmoils of both women, even if it is not able to empower them without the invention of new material.

The script, translated by Li Jianming as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ambitious Shakespeare Folio Translation Project, forgoes some of the intricacies of the original’s wordplay in order to distil the meaning of the lines into a clear, supple translation.

Some of her best work is, unsurprisingly, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which die-hard Shakespeareans will be glad to hear is delivered in its entirety at the end of the play by a Hamlet risen from the dead.

Li Liuyi may have broken with tradition on many points, but does he honour the richness of the original? That is no question.

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts/Esplanade