Guimet Museum Presents I, HAMLET Review — Breathtaking Intro to Chinese Opera

Guimet Museum I, HAMLET
Photo courtesy of Guimet Museum

With a daring and dramatic leap across the stage, supine Zhang Jun becomes Hamlet finally at rest.   His hour upon the stage— as Shakespeare has dubbed it— and this one-man Chinese Opera performance of I, Hamlet, have come to the finale.  Yet, when Zhang Jun rises for his bows, he seems to remain in the character of world literature’s perhaps most famous muser about mortality.  Some might call it solemn, others would describe him as stern-faced —Zhang Jun gives us piercing stares as he slowly bows to each corner of the hall.

Our certainty that this is not the Hamlet we read in school begins as soon as we enter the auditorium.  The stage seems to have clumps of chairs and upturned tables.  There are several short broom handles with skulls on top, which we imagine will be pressed into service when the famed lines “To be, or not to be…”  are said. As we are taking it all in actor Zhang Jun enters the stage to inspect the surrounds himself. He then sits centerstage and consults a mirror as his makeup assistant comes to help him prepare for the show.  Tapes and fabrics of different kinds are wrapped round and round Zhang Jun’s head with meticulous precision.  A plate of sorts is positioned on his forehead such that when he turns we now see a countenance as much mask as face.

Like a pre-surgery checklist, details are being tended to, though we don’t know exactly their why-for.

Guimet Museum I, HAMLET
Photo courtesy of Guimet Museum

I, HAMLET Advances Guimet Museum Mission to Showcase Asian Arts

Surtitled in English, the original score and script for this Kun style Chinese Opera, I, Hamlet, holds our rapt attention from beginning to end.  Zhang Jun becomes multiple characters in the story— the gravedigger, Hamlet, Hamlet’s father ghost, and Ophelia.  He switches seamlessly from one role to another with few props other than a mustache, a flower, a shawl, and a diaphanous curtain that allows his shadow projection to be a ghost.

For this writer, the most perfect of props are the broom-handled skulls that are flipped upside down to become the puppet likenesses of the murderous uncle/king and adulterous queen/mother when Hamlet re-enacts their perfidy in his performance of the play within the play.

The libretto is spiced here or there with dots of Shakespeare’s English that we imagine some or most of the Francophones in the room don’t get as we do.  Yet more is communicated to us by the wailing Chinese vowels that Zhang Jun often sings to convey Hamlet’s existential anguish, the ghost’s scold, or the gravedigger’s drunken truth-teller lines.  

An orchestra of Chinese instruments plays something like a background cinema score that is always clueing us into the emotions of the script.  As he sings, Zhang Jun takes command of the entire stage.  His body is always in motion, changing postures to inhabit different characters. We are mesmerized from beginning to end. 

How extraordinary for an American in Paris to experience a first Chinese Opera in all its most foreign and exotic trappings, but within the territory of a story we know so well.  Bravo to Zhang Jun and Musée Guimet both.


Guimet Museum I, HAMLET
Photo courtesy of Guimet Museum

For more information on the museum exhibitions and events highlighting Asian Arts visit the Guimet Museum website.

Watch an earlier performance of I, Hamlet recorded at New York City’s Asia Society below—

Photos by Peter Kachergis, unless otherwise indicated.

This story has been added to the Picture This Post roundup article on OPERAS WE LOVE.
Watch this video preview here--

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.


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