Writer Q and A

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Writer James Fenton talks about adapting a classic Chinese story for the British stage.

How did your new adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao come about?

Greg Doran persuaded me to get involved. He sent me several versions, as well as plot summaries of other versions that we couldn't get translations of.

But when we started looking at the material, you could see that as it stood, it was unstageable, so we decided to make a completely new version.

This happens routinely in China. People reinterpret the story or rearrange the material to suit their own preoccupation. There isn't a single text in the way that there is in say, Hamlet. That was quite a liberating thing to understand.

What did you need to take into account when adapting one of China's most well-known dramas for a UK audience?

There are certain formal devices, for example, when principal characters come on stage they introduce themselves in a rather upfront way and we kept a lot of that. In certain points what you are hearing is the original dialogue. So we didn't shy away from the original nature at all.

Then there are certain things in the original that we could see would be very difficult for a western audience. I began to see that the right thing to do was not to tone down the original, but to make that problem a feature of the play. For instance, the life of one child is sacrificed to save the life of another, and it is very hard to convince a western audience of that argument. So you have to leave the ambiguity and difficulty there in the play.

Then there's a linguistic consideration. You are trying to devise a poetic style ...You don't want to make it too obviously orientalising but you want to preserve something of the original.

Tell us about the four new poems you have written for the play.

The earliest versions of the play have word text for arias where the music has been lost. I immediately wanted to establish the idiom of the play so I wrote one song and then I found, rather to my surprise, that I wrote four. It was like making a suspension bridge – the songs are like the uprights and the play is slung between them. Once I'd written the poems then I was able to write a scene.

How did you write convincingly about situations and issues from such an ancient time?

A lot of the situations in the play are modern situations – things I've come across at one removed: people doing everything to protect their child, people living through massacres, disasters etc. At every point through the drama, I've asked myself basic human questions – how would a woman behave in this situation, how could a man tolerate this life? What you get is tempered by my own experience of life.

The Orphan of Zhao is often referred to as the Chinese Hamlet. What links it to Shakespeare?

In terms of it being referred to as the Chinese Hamlet, that's partly because it's China's most famous play and partly because it's a revenge play. And there's a ghost that comes in to remind one of the protagonists that there's this issue unresolved, so that's a parallel.

I think it's more the Chinese Lear because the emotional effect is like a steam roller. At any point, there might be something comic and the play moves between comedy and tragedy very easily. In the original versions there were comic scenes that were also rather violent and clown parts just as in Shakespeare. In one of the most dreadful scenes in the play there is a regular laugh that I had always anticipated since we did the very first read-throughs. It's characteristic of the drama in that one moment you will laugh and then the next moment, you're having to take that laugh back. There are a lot of tears and Kleenex involved as well.

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