Macbeth meets Chinese Opera

"They must come and see if it works or doesn't work," says director/producer Chin San Sooi of his restaging of the Chinese Opera-styled Macbeth.

Marrying these two art forms has long been a dream of his … since the 1970s, he claims. And now being able to reprise last year's production, in conjunction with Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary this year, Macbeth is not just timely but has also provided more avenues for exploration.

Known for his unique interpretations of famous theatre texts, Chin will once stir up some fun with two of his favourite stage traditions.

"I am a dilettante of Chinese Opera. Though I don't know much about it, I love Chinese Opera. Back in the old days, I would go and see any show I could on the streets," said the 75-year-old veteran theatre personality and founder member of Five Arts Centre, the Chinese Opera Club, Kuala Lumpur, as well as artistic director for The Canticle Singers.

"It's not your regular performance, it's unique," he said of this interpretation of the classic tragedy, and why people should make a point of watching it. The play combines the full Shakespearean text with operatic costumes, makeup, gestures, as well as the musical interludes and percussive accompaniment that go with the Oriental artform.

Chin claims that, to his knowledge, no Western theatre company or Chinese theatre group has attempted anything like this before, where the audience literally sees two performances: Shakespeare and Chinese Opera.

This Macbeth is neither an adaptation nor a translation. When asked if the text would be stylised in Chinese Opera speech and song, Chin scoffed, but not before spouting a few lines in a shrilled, sing-song manner. "How can you do Shakespeare like that? He will roll in his grave."

He explained: "This is Shakespeare's English text. There are elements in the speeches which can be performed in a heightened manner, with the Chinese Opera accompaniments such as cymbals and sticks. I am trying to do a little of this, to show that even it takes a lot of work, it can be done … . It is interesting, an eye-opener … almost like a launching pad to more exploration."

Chin has included Mandarin subtitles so the Chinese-educated crowd won't be left out when they come to see the show. And for those not well-versed in Shakespeare, fret not, he says.

"Shakespeare's plays are all strong, direct stories. Even if you can't spot the nuances, the colouring and the ironies, it doesn't matter."

The challenge for him with audiences, he reveals, is not that people won't understand the performance, but rather "those who think they know Shakespeare".

Chin said: "They want to see 'their' Shakespeare play, not the play that is being presented to them. And anything that deviates from that is deemed not good".

While he cites King Lear as a favourite, Chin chose Macbeth because it is so popular, and also because it has ghosts and witches … "that always fascinates people!" he laughed. "The play is also very military in nature, with a king and queen, so I felt the Chinese Opera costumes would lend themselves to it nicely.

"With a costume of bold colours and flags, you'll immediately be able to pick out the general," said the garrulous director about the starring role of Macbeth.

Chin is excited that modern theatre is returning to the basics of just telling stories without elaborate sets.

"Shakespeare would say 'O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend, The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!'," he burst into the prologue for Henry V. "You have to use your imagination. If you see one person on the stage, it is a thousand people. Shakespeare is essentially like Chinese Opera in this manner. I see the connection in the sense that these (the stories, the actors) are rudiment to theatre. Theatre really is about people acting. Not about sets, and stage scenery or all the things that go with it."

Apart from the usual challenge of coaching the actors, who were not trained in Chinese Opera, Chin said he found the characterisation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth particularly exacting as well.

"Usually, people see Macbeth as a person with conscience, while Lady Macbeth is a witch, pushing him," he said, revealing that in his play last year, he further scrutinised the psychological currents underlying the husband-and-wife relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. (Macbeth will be played by Brian Cheong, who is reprising the role he portrayed in 2015, while Lady Macbeth is played by Vivienne Oon.)

Then, of course, there was the question of how to portray the witches. Chin chose to work with one of his favourite collaborators, Pearlly Chuah.

"She has been doing Emily Of Emerald Hill with me for a very long time," he said, referring to the one-woman play by Stella Kon, that tells the tale of Emily Gan, a typically strong matriarch in the Peranakan enclave of Emerald Hill. "Pearlly started her theatre career with me. And since I have this actress whom I think is versatile enough and able to manipulate her voice to a certain degree, why not use her as all three witches?"

Shakespeare's witches (or weird sisters) hail Macbeth, early in the play, and prophesy his ascent to king, which is when heads start to roll. To bring to life these three contradictory sisters, Chuah uses two hand puppets, and her voice.

Chuah, who has never played a witch before ("unless you count Emily … who is quite the witch herself," she joked), said she relishes the role. "Every witch has a different voice, with a slightly different tone. It's a matter of training the mind and the vocal muscles to work in tandem for each of the sisters.

"Last year was like a warm up," she explained. "This year, it's clearer - the personalities, the quirks. One witch is grumpy, one is flirtatious (or 'manja'), the other is very matter-of-fact … she calls the shots."

Chuah won't be the only actor flexing her acting muscles on stage. Everyone in the cast has more than just one role to play.

In line with Chinese Opera traditions, Chin has included a curtain raiser, Lok Kwok Tai Fong Seong (The Summoning Of The Prime Minister) and an excerpt from Tai Loi Fah (The Last Of The Ming Princess) in English and Cantonese. The same cast for Macbeth will take on all the roles in these two small performances as well.

Chin said: "In Chinese Opera, these plays were always used to start the opera season. It is a divertissement to showcase the splendour of the Chinese Opera costumes and its basic gestures."

Macbeth will play on April 22-24 and April 28-May 1 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Petaling Jaya. For more information, call 03-4065 0001.