Macbeth in Vietnam: toil and trouble for naught

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Shakespeare's classic tragedy fails to win local hearts and minds

The sound wasn't great; voices were sometimes hushed and the words and music muddled together.

And if the Old-English wasn't difficult enough for local Vietnamese audiences to understand native English speakers often don't understand it the poor audio system at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House made the play all but incomprehensible for many.

But that wasn't the only problem with TNT Theater's recent staging of Macbeth, in English, in HCMC.

The crowds, thin as they were, were virtually devoid of Vietnamese observers, though TNT is well known here, and a previous Vietnamese production of Macbeth had been a hit.

In fact, TNT has performed in more than 30 countries over the last three decades. And director Paul Stebbings' works have won several international awards.

This time, however, TNT's Macbeth appears to have been misunderstood. Local news outlets like Voice of Vietnam and VietNamNet described the performance as "a musical" which it most certainly was not.

Many audience members said they preferred the Vietnamese version of Macbeth in 2002 by Hanoi's Youth Theater, which was one of the long-standing theater's biggest hits and also a success at the Shakespeare 24 International Shakespeare Festival held in 2008 from New Zealand to Hawaii.

A blogger by the name of Heo wrote that TNT didn't do much to make the play accessible to local Vietnamese audiences.

Heo, along with many other critics, said that Gareth Fordred as Macbeth and Hannah McPake as Lady Macbeth were both brilliant on the stage, but that the emotional content of the play wasn't as stirring as the Vietnamese version.

"I was not as emotionally fulfilled as I was when I saw the Vietnamese hit, which tells the story of modern life," wrote Heo. "Maybe that's because the English in Shakespeare's age was much more complicated and difficult to understand."

The blogger was comparing the TNT Theater version to the Vietnamese Macbeth directed by noted local director Le Hung.

He wrote that Hung's adaption of Shakespeare appealed to local audiences by "Vietnamizing" the play: it was set in modern-day Hanoi. He also said the director's strong personality was conveyed without losing the classical European features of the work.

Other critics found that Hannah McPake was too soft and sweet in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, who tempts her husband into murdering for power.

The unseen barriers

On the facebook page created by a local ticket seller and promoter Phan Hoang Le, who works at Vietnam Performing Art Center, the Macbeth "invitation" only drew eight "attending confirmations" from his friends.

All of the guests-to-be commented that the tickets were "too expensive."

Compared to local stage plays, which cost around VND100,000-200,000 maximum with local leading stars, Macbeth was priced at VND300,000-700,000.

The failure was not about the play's quality, it was about what happened outside the theater.

The local press barely touched on Macbeth, whereas many articles were written about TNT's previous efforts with "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet."

Language was also another problem.

 "The lack of Vietnamese subtitles was also another big problem," said Khanh Hung, a reporter of entertainment and art section of Song Nhac newspaper. "Many locals who are not good at English still wanted to see the show."

The brochure with its introduction, character descriptions, and dialogues in English did not help much either.

"Old English is obviously hard to get, even for native speakers, without a good translation," said Hung. "It is similar to the case of a foreigner who goes to the local theater without knowing a Vietnamese word. He will see people laugh or cry without knowing why, even if he knows the general story beforehand."

However, Grantly Marshall, the show's producer, didn't think subtitles wouldn't have helped the play fare better.

"We never use subtitles, finding this practice does not tend to increase audience numbers," he said.

However, TNT performed the same play last month in Hongkong with Chinese subtitles, according to a press release on the HK government website.

Hung maintained it was language, not culture, that threw up the biggest barrier for Vietnamese audiences, who had no problem relating to the different cultures of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet."

"The crimes inspired by human greed and journeys of atonement are not hard to understand, as these are true stories in any society in any era," Hung said.

"Vietnam needs more time to move in the direction of Singapore, China, or Hong Kong, where English-speaking theatrical productions are regularly developed," he added. "People call upon us [the media] to support this kind of production, but audiences need time to discover and get acquainted with foreign plays, and they need to find the charm of foreign art themselves. Don't push the audiences to control their emotions or compare them with audiences in other Asian countries where English-speaking theater is more developed."

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