I have never enjoyed Chinese opera. Chinese opera to Chinese youth nowadays is a bit like what Shakespeare is to English-speaking youth – something confined to the realm of literary studies. And if they are popularly enjoyed, often it is only in some form of modern adaptation.

For just three nights last week, The Guangzhou Dramatic Arts Centre brought their production of the Chinese opera The Handan Dream to the UK stage at the Hackney Empire. Despite my reservations, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. For starters, I could understand what they were saying – traditional Chinese opera is often sung in a shrill dialect, which is difficult for the untrained ear to fully make out.

The Handan Dream was written by Tang Xianzu, a poet and dramatist in the later years of the Ming Dynasty in China. Although separated by geography and culture, Tang and Shakespeare happened to live at the same time, and even died in the same year, 1616. Both playwrights produced work that explored the timeless aspects of human nature – expressions of life that transcended time and space. It is no wonder that both thus left significant legacies in their respective cultures.

The ‘Handan Road’ refers to the road en route to the state exams, which passes through the city of Handan. Over the years it has acquired a metaphorical meaning, referring to the journey one takes to officialdom. In ancient China, an intellectual’s foremost goal is to study hard, pass these official exams, and become an official.

The Handan Dream follows the protagonist Lu, an intellectual who has spent his whole life studying the classical works with the aim of walking the Handan road and passing the state exams with flying colours. However, we see him on his fourth journey, after having failed the exam three times before. On the way, he stops by an inn where a Taoist priest gives him a magic pillow, on which he falls asleep while waiting for his millet meal to cook. Lu is whisked into a parallel life where he meets and marries a lady of wealth, bribes the officials and passes the exams. He becomes a decorated official only to fall into the traps of fame and wealth, and after a life of ups and downs he settles to celebrate his 80th birthday – only to wake up from the dream.

The Taoist priest suggests that perhaps this vision of an ‘ideal’ life is trapping his reality, and that perhaps, happiness is within reach as long as Lu can let this vision go, as in a dream. Lu refuses, and keeps the magic pillow, preferring instead to live his dream.

The central idea of this play can be summed up in the Taoist priest’s poetic verse: “I look back, smile and pass Handan without a rest”. This idea of ‘looking back with a smile’ is a particularly Chinese expression of letting things go. Indeed, director Wang Xiaodi wanted this adaptation to focus on this philosophical attitude of Tang Xianzu, basing her script adaptation, set, costumes and other aspects on this idea – rather than the more typical interpretation of the play as a criticism of officialdom.

And indeed, when it comes down to it, what is an ‘ideal life’? Is it what society has conditioned us to believe is the ideal path for us, or is it what we really want? It is difficult to say why Lu is so bent on the Handan road, and whether he had stopped to explore his own motivations. And if it is something external – people often pass the exams by bribing – what does it take to shake the dreams off with a laugh? Perhaps the ideal life is simply an illusion, a red herring, only as real as the dream Lu had.

Although Tang originally wrote The Handan Dream as a traditional Chinese opera, this adaptation presented it as a ‘ci ju’, or ‘poetic drama’, which is a similar style to how Shakespeare writes in verse. It retains the beauty of the poetic language while being more accessible to modern audiences. This production also made use of what is known as ‘freehand stage design’, a feature of Chinese opera where the stage is split into two layers, one representing reality while the other the dream. During the performance, the separation between the two shifts and overlaps, representing the arbitrary separation and Lu’s movement between the two.

The protagonist Lu is a typical member of the ancient Chinese intellectual community. This play makes use of fantastical elements to explore their outlook towards life, motivations and understanding of their fate, while at the same time expanding into a wider discussion on human nature and the examined life.

4 Stars

Where? Hackney Empire When? Jan 25th - 27th How Much? £10 - £35