Much fun was to be had with the premiere of Cleopatra and Her Fools (艷后和她的小丑們) over the weekend at the National Theater, but it remains a question as to whether it was nearly as clever as it thought it was. And it clearly thought it was very clever indeed. In fact it was nothing more than a solid ensemble piece with one star turn, and with far too much invested in lavish costumes and various incidentals. Unforgivably, it was almost entirely devoid of soul. The result was eye-catching rather than memorable.
It must be said right at the onset that in terms of production values, Cleopatra scored highly, and it is likely that this sophisticated cocktail of traditional Chinese opera and contemporary experimental theater, with any number of literary and philosophical “-isms” and a knowing, self-referential, humor thrown in, is likely to appeal to an international audience in search of the exotic.
The production, created by the doyen of contemporary Taiwanese playwrights Chi Wei-jan (紀蔚然) for Beijing opera diva Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), who plays the title role, plays off Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the manner of a literary parlour game. In some respects, it is reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for the film Shakespeare in Love. Here is a playwright showing off his familiarity with the classics and contemporary literary theory, messing around with the now rather tired tropes of postmodernism and deconstruction, but not really attempting to say anything of any significance.
Moreover, Chi has introduced a play-within-a-play structure that is distressingly similar to Ping-Fong Acting Troupe’s (屏風表演班) Apocalypse of Beijing Opera (京劇啟示錄) from 1996, which itself harks back to Secret Love in the Peach Blossom Land (暗戀桃花源), an early work of Stan Lai’s (賴聲川) that goes all the way back to 1986. The echoes of these earlier productions make Cleopatra seem rather derivative. Worse yet, it is not nearly as witty as Secret Love, which was firmly rooted in the literary crosstalk (相聲) tradition of Chinese comedy, nor does it have the solid nuts-and-bolts comic soundness of Apocalypse.
Cleopatra has higher ambitions. First and foremost is its attempt to create Shakespeare’s grand tragedy on an operatic scale. Layering this atop a rather stale comic base fails miserably, and not even a hint of the transcendent and conflicted love between the cynical Roman general and the scheming Egyptian queen is ever realized on stage.
The dramatic high points of the show relied almost entirely on the superlative presence of Wei, who commands the stage in a way that makes the other members of the cast fade into the background. The only exception is Chen Ching-ho (陳清河), who as Mardian the Eunuch, a relatively minor role, managed to impose himself on the unsympathetic material with his strong sense of comic timing and understanding of the background drama.
The two main male roles, both played by experienced performers, failed to make an impact. Sheng Jian (盛鑑), a rising star in Beijing opera who, with his pop-star good looks, is popular with younger audiences, was hopelessly inadequate as Mark Antony, an inspired warrior and leader of men (whatever his moral failings), and Wen Yuhang (溫宇航), one of the most assured actors in Chinese opera today, was disgracefully miscast as Octavian. While subordinating the two main male characters to Wei’s Cleopatra may well have been the aim of the director, eager to put the focus on his female star, the result is that neither of these poltroons has any part to play in a high romantic tragedy, and that fatally undermines the emotional drama.