In Search of the Orphan

A Week in China

July 24, 2012

Yu GardensGhosts cannot turn corners, which is why the bridge which crosses to the Huxinting Teahouse in the centre of a little lake in the Yu Bazaar in Shanghai has nine zig-zags. Nine is an especially lucky number in China.

The Yu Gardens date back to the Ming dynasty. We stroll through a series of beautiful pavilions smelling of incense and old dust. They are hung with huge octagonal lanterns with red tassels, and are open on all sides to allow the summer breeze to waft through fretwork panels, and ventilate the different chambers.

We wander through moongates framing vistas of lotus filled ponds, bright with orange carp, bubbling with waterfalls and fringed with knotted pine trees. The white walls which surround the gardens are topped with a twisting grey dragon with a pearl in its mouth. I feel as if I have stepped into a willow pattern plate.

Designer, Niki Turner and I are here in China for a few days to research a production of The Orphan of Zhao, for our A World Elsewhere Season in the Swan Theatre, this autumn.

The play is known here, as the Chinese Hamlet. It was published in 1616, the year Shakespeare died, although the story dates back to a period known as the Spring and Autumn era, seven centuries BC. In fact the play was probably written in the Yuan dynasty in the fourteenth century, but we don't need to be historically accurate.

Ming Theatre in the Yu GardensThese gardens suggest many scenes from the play. Here is the Crimson Cloud Tower from which the feeble ruler, corrupted by the evil minster Tu'an Gu, fires arrows at the crowd in the streets below the wall; and here is the courtyard where the assassin Chu Ni commits suicide by bashing his head against the pagoda tree.

Niki and I snap away furiously. There is so much inspiration for our production here. Some of our research will prove invaluable, some will be impossible to include. We have just a week to absorb as much as we can. As we make our way back across the nine zigzag bridge to the Teahouse, we are feeling very lucky indeed.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

Next in In Search of the Orphan
An afternoon at the Shanghai Opera »

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Teaching Shakespeare