A Shakespearean Handan Dream: when the East meets the West

This year is rather special for the literature world, as it marks the 400 years of anniversary for the deaths of two great playwrights. One lived in the Elizabethan England as the national poet who shaped our modern English, the other from the far east who was a government official but used his plays to reflect the corrupt and bureaucratic society. They are William Shakespeare of England and Tang Xianzu of China. Where one had the masterpiece Romeo and Juliet known by every household, the other had The Peony Pavillion that would bring anyone to tears.

It would have been impossible for them to meet in those days, but who knew their legacy met on stage 400 years after their death in the heart of London: St Paul’s Church Covent Garden.


Ke Jun, the president of of Jiangsu Theatre association has collaborated with Leon Rubin of the Royal Shakespearean Company, and produced Handan Dream which combined Tang Xianzu’s famous opera Handan Story and various exerts from Shakespeare’s plays: King Lear, Cleopatra, Macbeth and more.


A frustrated scholar Lu encountered a god in a hostel, thus complained about his failure from the imperial examination. To enlighten Lu, the god sent him to a journey of life whilst in his dream, a journey of 50 years of success, fame and dissolute life, then finally ended in death. After Lu woke up from his dream, he was surprised that he was still in the hostel and time has not gone passed. Tang Xianzhu used Handan Dream to warn people life’s impermanence, that all desires and ambitions would end in dust. After experiencing high society, luxury and power, Scholar Lu realized that all would end in disappointment.


My boyfriend and I went to the event and were very impressed by the production. This production is the first of its kind, which bypassed the cultural and languages differences.  The original Handan story would have taken days and nights to perform, whereas for this production, everything was condensed into 1 hour 30 mins. Handan Dream explicitly expressed people’s desires and ambitions, and showed that everything, fame, money, power, comes to nothing at the time of death…


I have thoroughly enjoyed this production. The Shakespearean plays and Handan Story integrated nicely together. Although my boyfriend found it slightly hard to follow, as he had no knowledge of Chinese opera or Shakespeare’s plays. Despite all these, he was rather taken by the singing and beautiful movements. The sound and lighting filled the church beautifully. Sitting in the church, it was as if we are transposed to the 16th century, where electricity and technology didn’t exist. It was simply amazing.


Chinese opera is a great passion of mine. If you would like to find out more about Chinese opera, or how to be involved, please get in touch with London Xiqu Network: https://www.facebook.com/groups/LJKOA


Kunqu: one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, was said to have reached the highest popularity in Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Handan: a city located in Southwest of Hebei Province in China.

Photo credit: X Zhan