A group of international students from Shanghai Theatre Academy are staging their theatrical production Queen Mab by weaving excerpts from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a narrative inspired by Chinese Kunqu Opera The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu, the ancient Chinese playwright often referred to as "the Shakespeare of the East."
Alex Gomar (left) as Christopher Sly and Swati Simha as Queen Mab [Photo: Courtesy of Alex Gomar]
Songs, speeches and movements from Peking Opera are blended with Shakespearean storytelling to contrast the aesthetics of Eastern and Western theatrical traditions. The project seeks to explore how different styles can be combined to bring out the best theatrical effects.
The play starts with a Peking Opera performance by a mysterious supernatural figure called Pan Guan (Wang Jiannan). A drunken expatriate named Christopher Sly (Alex Gomar) accidentally breaks in and ruins the performance. The infuriated Pan Guan calls for the help of fairy-like creature Queen Mab (Swati Simha) to disorient Sly by trapping him between dream and reality in revenge.
Sly falls in love with the beautiful Queen Mab, who has entered his dream and offers him everything he wants. He becomes so confused that he ends up mistaking another woman for Queen Mab and tries to force himself on her. On realizing what has happened, he is so under Queen Mab's control that he has to make a decision: stay in his dream, or return to reality?
Dream vs. reality
"Queen Mab is effortlessly menacing and unassumingly powerful," Simha said. "She has been employed to effect her magic on a man who has been insulting and unreasonable. She seduces him with the very art he insulted and provokes him to make choices that will fulfill her task."
Queen Mab is described in Romeo and Juliet as a scary miniature sprite who plants in her victims' heads objects they desire: lawyers dream of money, soldiers of slaughter, women of kisses and courtiers of flattering their lords. Similarly, in The Peony Pavilion, young maiden Du Liniang misses her dream lover Liu Mengmei so much that she falls ill. Therefore, Queen Mab, as an incarnation of dreams, plays a central role in relating the two masterpieces in the new production.
The theatrical project is built upon the tension between dream and reality. "The idea of chasing one's dreams as a cause of his demise seems to be a palpable link between the two plays, and it is the thread by which our production intends to link the two," Gomar said.