Shakespeare Meets Chinese Opera

Macbeth fighting scene 2 from 2015 production

CHINESE opera costumes, full-blown Chinese stage make-up and some Chinese stylised gestures will give William  Shakespeare’s Macbeth an Asian face under Chin San Sooi.

One is the oldest form of modern theatre while the Bard’s works have transcended boundaries of geography and cultures.

Known for unique interpretations of famous  theatre texts, Chin will combine the full Shakespearean text  in this Chinese opera presentation. It’s a first for Malaysia and the audience will literally  see two performances: Shakespeare and the splendour of the Chinese Opera.

When it was first staged in April last year, it wowed many in the audience. As this year marks the Bard’s 400th death anniversary, a restaging is timely.

“Last year, I did not employ Chinese opera make-up,” says Chin, who offers his age as “75 going on 60”.  “This year, full Chinese opera make-up will be employed. Also, I shall be employing a little more Chinese opera elements into the acting.

“I wanted to work with the original cast so that they could develop their role. However, some of them could not commit to the date of performance owing to personal commitments, college examinations. So, there are changes in the cast.”

Chin himself played Lennox the last time around, which he now says was one of the shortcomings.

That brings to light the hardest part of this production, he adds. “The rehearsal process, especially getting the actors to enter their role, challenging them to be the character and not themselves. Then there’s the physical mounting of the play which costs a tidy sum of money,” explains the director-producer.

The production has also the guidance  of  Madam  Elizabeth  Choy  Him Heong, a longtime practitioner of Chinese opera but is now a  consultant  for Chinese  opera  troupes.

Chin stresses that the original Shakespearean text will be used, with Mandarin surtitles during the performances.

“The exciting thing is, of course, using the text and employing Chinese Opera elements in the performance.

“Two cultural icons: Shakespeare (West) meets Chinese Opera (East). I know that it works, some skeptics saw the production and said it worked and they added, and I agree, that a few of the minor characters were not up to the mark (in last year’s show). I take responsibility for that,” says this Kuala Lumpur son who was raised in Ipoh, Perak.

Theatre fans would have caught Chin’s many productions including the musicals Morning In Night, Yap Ah Loy the Play, Reunion and Kuala Lumpur Sentral.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about a brave Scottish general who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia, and he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler as he is forced to commit more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of arrogance, madness, and death.

Reprising the titular role is Brian Cheong Chee  Yoong, a member  of  The  Canticle  Singers for about 13 years. Chin, a founding member of the Five Arts Centre, is the artistic director of the vocal ensemble.

Television presenter and actress Vivienne Oon plays Lady Macbeth while Pearlly Chua plays the three witches. Chua is best known for her role in the Leow Puay Tin monologue, Emily of Emerald Hill.

Macbeth, says Chin, is the favoured play not only in Malaysia but throughout the world for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.

“Visually, it is stunning — witches, ghosts, battles and challenging psychological insights — all make compelling viewing.

“Of course Lady  Macbeth is the most challenging role in the play. Vivienne Oon who plays the role this time round is one not to miss. She will be a compelling presence on stage.”

Chin switched to theatre production from teaching, decades ago. “Theatre in essence is the dramatization of experiences in life.  It invites one to participate and appreciate life’s drama in a heighten objectivity. It informs, stimulates and challenges our sensibilities.

“Hence, theatre vibrantly educates us.

“Theatre is not a one-man show. In its widest reaches it involves a community, it calls for team work.”

There are many similar qualities for those in both these vocations, one of them being patience. Teachers will attest to that and does Shakespeare who in Othello, “Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod.” For Chin, it’s a lesson he learnt well. Apart of also “learning to live and take delight in being a masochist”, he says he learnt ” ..patience sitting like a monument”, a quote from the Bard’s play, Twelfth Night, which ends “smiling like grief”.

Rest assured, Chin’s labour will not be lost if last year’s rave reviews are to be believed.

Check out Macbeth at the  Damansara  Performing   Arts   Centre from April 22-May 1.

Chin’s Macbeth season will begin with a curtain raiser on April 21, in the tradition of Chinese opera theatre, with The  Summoning  of  the  Prime  Minister  (Lok  Kwok  Tai  Fong  Seong)  and an excerpt from Tai Loi Fah (The last of the Ming Princess) in English and Cantonese, at 7pm & 9pm. Lok  Kok  Tai  Fong  Seong  is  a  Cantonese  divertissement  to  show case  the splendour of the Chinese Opera costumes and its basic gestures.  It is shown as a curtain raiser of the opera season.

The excerpt from Tai Loi Fah is one of the best known scenes in Chinese Opera. The  English  translation  is  done  by  Liau  Siau  Suan  and  Chin  to  help English-speaking audiences to understand the poetry in the Cantonese version.

The Macbeth performances will run April 22-24m April 28-May 1, at 8pm. Matinees at 3pm will be on April 23-24, and April 30 and May 1.

Tickets are RM48/RM38. Call 03-4065 0001/ 4065 0002 or email

** This article appeared in the new straits times, april 2016

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