First question to Tim Robbins, “How tall are you?”. Answer: 6 foot 5. Yep, folks, he is one tall drank of water. Even with white flowing hair, he reminds me of his character, “Meat”, from Bull Durham, one of my favorite movies. These days, Tim has moved on to directing, though when questioned why he changed from being an actor to director, he replied that he first acted at 12 years of age and started directing at 14, so he has been at both for awhile. These were not deep questions to probe the inner workings of the director but hey, it’s China. I enjoyed hearing what was on the minds of the Chinese audience after seeing the play.
All the actors and their director gathered on the stage after their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shanghai. Opening night and it was not sold out. These were Actors’ Gang thespians and they rocked this surreal world of fairies, spells, lovers gone bewitched and crazily complicated language that stayed true to the original story with few exceptions. To see it in China, the first time that The Actors’ Gang has brought a play to the China mainland was special.
Chinese audiences are still learning how to react to concerts/plays in my experience and true to that, it wasn’t until the end that the audience started responding with some laughter in appropriate places. Having gone to concerts where the audience doesn’t quite know where to clap or respond, the lack of a standing ovation for this wonderful performance didn’t surprise me. When the announcement came that the actors would speak to the audience who wanted to stay after, I was surprised to see how many people ran for the exits. Maybe they didn’t understand but here was a unique opportunity to ask the whole cast direct questions. From my seat in the front row, it felt very intimate and very interesting. Tim was questioned why he chose this Shakespeare play to direct. He said, in this time of turmoil in the world, that this play spoke to love and how fragile yet important it is to all.
I was super proud of myself for going by myself, though I wished Thom was there throughout. It’s always more fun with Thom. Since he is still in Boise setting up our new house, I decided I had to get out of the house and see this great play. After the taxi driver took me on the scenic, more expensive Laowai route, and then got misdirected to buy tickets, I hustled to my seat with minutes to spare. For about $40 US I got a front row seat on the side behind the one man band, which was interesting to watch. I don’t know his name but I’m betting he has done many different musical pursuits in his career. He played the guitar, drums, bells, tambourine, etc. to add drama and flair to the performances.
With Chinese subtitles broadcast on big reader boards, several of the predominantly Chinese audience craned their necks to read what was being said in English but most people just let the performance flow over them, actions taking precedence over words. Even if they could not understand everything that was going on, and really, who can with Shakespeare, everyone enjoyed the dramatic acting and ambience created with simple props. There was no fancy sets-actually none. The imagery for this production was created by the creativity of the characters, music, and costumes. I love Broadway plays and saw many when we lived in NYC but the sets are usually very elaborate and can distract from the actors’ performances. During this play, I was mesmerized by the ability of the twelve actors to create the mood with branches of trees, flowers and their bodies moving fluidly about the stage.
With dressing lockers on stage at either side, I thought it might detract as the actors raced to change between costumes and characters. The article in the Shanghai Daily today explained that this set up was a decision by Tim to “strip away the artifice of theater” and it worked. Tim even told us that he had to add a dream scene to the play because the actors needed to stall for more time to transition costumes.
Why is it that men in drag always draw a laugh, no matter what language they are speaking? That and crotch grabbing are universal and always appreciated by audience. Crazy but very predictable. Well, whatever, it was nice to hear everyone laughing and having a good time. Many families were there, exposing their children to the great Shakespeare, probably for the first time.
All in all, even though I was Thom-less, I’m glad I ventured out to experience this wonderful production. I am in awe of the troupe’s amazing ability to transform words into a magical world where love conquers all despite the chaos of the world around us. Thank you, Tim Robbins. Well done indeed.