Hu Xuan*

The Lady from the Sea. Written by Henrik Ibsen. Translated and adapted by Zhang Ke. Directed by Wang Yuanyuan. Presented by Jin Dong. Produced by the Beijing Repertory Theatre, China. The premiere and the first run were from September 7 to December 3, 2017; the second run was from January 20 to February 3, 2018.

Poster for The Lady from the Sea. In the photo, Ellida (Chen Shu)

When we talk about the production of a canonical work in another culture, we are talking about a trans-cultural adaptation, whose success depends on such elements as the translation of source language, mise-en-scene and the indigenization of the theme.

It has been almost seven years since the last professional production of this play, which was a Yue Opera adaptation in 2010. In this sense, Beijing Repertory Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea is hardly a typical intercultural adaptation, since it makes little change in the plot. The majority of negative comments from the Shanghai press are about the “strong translation accent” which alienates the audience from a foreign story in a far-away country. In spite of the supposed foreign content, and if these factors make it difficult for the audience to follow the plot, then, one needs to ask what makes this production popular enough to carry out a new tour?

In my opinion, three aspects contribute to its success: the all-star cast as a selling point in a commercial society, an emphasis on the aestheticism of the stage design and the feminist interpretation of the theme, which coincides with the popular icon of the “dominant female protagonist” (大女主). All in all, the 2017 production finds resonance with and appreciation from audiences, and gains new connotations in terms of empowering females in the local context.

All-Star Cast

The producer, Jin Dong, who is a famous contemporary actor with great fame and popularity in TV series, founded the Beijing Repertory Theatre Company in 2017 and chose The Lady from the Sea as the first production of the company. His name was so highlighted before the performance that many were misled and bought the ticket hoping to see him on stage. Chen Shu (as Ellida) is a popular TV series actress, who enjoys the privilege of choosing and playing independent female figures. Luo Eryang (Wangel) acts extensively in TV and films, too. Their names are attractive enough for the audience to enter the theatre. Chen once stated in an interview that her major work is in TV series and film, whereas theatre is a luxury for her.[1] It is a funny loop that the actors who went through all the professional training on stage abandon theatre to make money on TV. The good news is that some of them choose to return to the stage bringing their box office appeal with them.

Aestheticism in Stage Design

The director, Wang Yuanyuan, is originally a ballet dancer and a choreographer with awards from home and abroad. This is an audacious attempt from her to mix choreographic elements in a theatrical performance. Wang says that it leads to chemistry when orchestral elements meet theatrical ones. A poetic aestheticism will be generated for a realistic story in the imaginary space on the stage.[2]

Based on her understanding of the play, she negotiates with the designers and puts forward minimalism as the overarching concept for the stage design.

L-R: The Stranger (Hu Jian), Bolette (Sun Shuyue), Hilda (Hao Shanhan), Ellida (Chen Shu) and Arnholm (Wang Zhuo). The Stranger waits for Ellida to leave with him. Photo by Zhao Qiansheng

The background and tone of the stage is blue, with a white frame to function as a division between the inside and outside of the house, as well as that between the land and the sea. A cluster of dark props behind the frame are set to represent the fjords. Ellida wears a blue dress indicating she is a “marine creature,” while all other characters wear black as “terrestrial creatures.” A round fish tank is placed on the right part of the frame with a red goldfish in it. When Ellida is left alone on the stage with the fish, I can’t help but see her as the confined goldfish. On the left side of the stage, stands a direction pole which reminds me of the ports I saw during my year in Norway, an emotional place to say goodbye.

Ellida (Chen Shu) sits beside the fish tank and sinks into contemplation about her past with the Stranger. Photo by Zhao Qiansheng

Whenever inner struggle torments Ellida, the whole stage turns to an overwhelming dark blue to symbolize the uncertainty in mind and the fear of potential danger. Dominated by a cold color, the stage design is basically made of geometrical lines and some geographically specific signs of Norwegianess. There is no intention to create a setting which is familiar to the Chinese audience. The stage is designed to create a foreign atmosphere rather than transform a Norwegian setting into a Chinese village. The estrangement effect in stage design visualizes the inner world of Ellida. In this way, the original symbolic style is replaced by a purely aesthetic one, which meets the theatrical expectation of the target audience: Chinese middle-class females. For them, aesthetic appeal is crucial for the success of a performance.

A Feminist Interpretation: “Dominant Female Protagonist”

The icon of the “dominant female protagonist” is generated from some popular contemporary TV series about how a simple girl grows up to become a capable or powerful figure in charge of a male community. In an interview carried out by a Chinese news website after the first performance in Shanghai, Chen Shu said her task was to inspire the audience to contemplate the female choice. Meanwhile, Wang Yuanyuan stated that she felt connected with the production due to her past experience as a career woman: “It makes me aware of the fact that females should have the right to decide our own life, and be responsible for our own decisions.”[3] It is clear that both the director and the leading actress share one point in common: empowering females. It is not surprising that Wangel is staged as an understanding, tolerant and somewhat weak male figure who represents an ideal husband for the “dominant female protagonist.”

Wangel (Luo Eryang) holds Ellida’s hand, trying to communicate with her as Ellida refuses. Photo by Zhao Qiansheng

According to an article by the Chinese psychologist Wu Zhihong, the self-identification of Chinese middle-class women manifests qualities such as rationality, loyalty to inner voice, economic independence and good command of her appearance. I think this, at least, reflects the mindset of the majority of Chinese middle-class females. And we can find them all, save for economic independence, in Ellida. This explains how Ibsen’s play finds new connotations in contemporary China.

Of Ibsen’s plays staged in China, The Lady from the Sea is not the most popular one. WhileA Doll’s House was highly advocated for political purpose in the 1930s, and was frequently adapted and continues to be performed till today, other female-centered plays, such as The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler, were pushed to the margins. If we consider the story of Nora to inspire Chinese women in their pursuit of own interests and in their call for gender equality in history,[4] then I would like to argue that Ellida represents the contemporary imagination of Chinese femininity.

[1] Please refer to: Shanghai Observer, Sept. 6, 2017.



[4] Please refer to: Chengzhou He, Henrik Ibsen and Chinese Modern Drama. Oslo: Unipubforlag, 2004.

*Hu Xuan is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Foreign Studies, at Nanjing University, China; also, a joint Ph.D. candidate in the center for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo. She studies Chinese theatre, Ibsen in China and intercultural adaptations of Western drama. She publishes at home and abroad in peer-reviewed journals. This review is supported by the Program B for Outstanding Ph.D. candidate of Nanjing University, 201702B039.

Copyright © 2018 Hu Xuan
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Ibsen’s Play Adapted to Represent Contemporary Chinese Femininity
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