"To be, or not to be, that is the question" is probably the best-known line in Shakespeare's works, if not all drama. Asked to quote the bard, many people are likely to quote the eternal question.
So, is it better to live or to die? UK's TNT Theater has brought to Shanghai an innovative interpretation of "Hamlet," encouraging people to go to the theater to find their own answer. It opens on Wednesday and runs through April 12 with Chinese subtitles.
"The story of Hamlet is maybe Shakespeare's best - it's a ghost story, a murder thriller, a love story, a mother-son family saga and a political drama," says Paul Stebbings, TNT Theater's artistic director and director of the play.
"It contains sword fights and madness scenes, suicides and poisoning, songs and poetry, and of course, the most famous words ever written. How can any director resist the opportunity to stage this play?" he says.
Three different versions of the play were printed in Shakespeare's time, known as the First Quarto, the Second Quarto and the First Folio. Each has lines and scenes that are missing from the others.
In his adaptation, Stebbings uses the structure and scene order of the First Quarto and a lot of the poetry from the First Folio.
"The First Quarto has the best structure and is like an 'actor's edition'," explains the director. "The poetry is not as good as the later versions, though. We are doing a unique text of 'Hamlet' - every word is by Shakespeare but no one has ever performed this version before. We think it makes the play more exciting and the story is much easier to follow."
In two and a half hours (Shakespeare's longest play), seven actors will perform about 20 roles. "It is long but it races by with all the action and excitement," Stebbings says. "It starts with a ghost and ends with a sword fight, and it even has jokes.
"We swap roles but then Shakespeare's actors did just the same in the 16th century. In Shakespeare's day there would have been 12 actors to play as much as, I think, 28 roles!" he adds.
Meanwhile, as a tradition of the theater, there will also be a lot of music in this "Hamlet." All the actors are accomplished singers and there will be live performances on guitars, drums and gongs by the actors.
"The music was composed in rehearsal so it fits really tightly with the play," Stebbings continues. "Again, we know that Shakespeare had no set and no stage lights in his theater, but he did employ musicians and write songs to go in the original play."
TNT Theater is no stranger to Shanghai theater-goers. It performed "Oliver Twist" last year and "Macbeth" in 2005.
Founded in 1980 in Britain, the troupe has established itself as one of the most popular international touring theater companies in the world. It will tour about 30 countries on three continents this year, including a six-week tour in China from Hainan Province to Shanghai.
The company's style aims to integrate all the performing arts, crossing the disciplines of theater, music and dance.
"They say 'Hamlet' is the most recognized fictional character on Earth. As a theater company that tries to tour the world, we are attracted to the play because all our audiences can relate to it," says the director.
Date: April 2-12, 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Shanghai Drama Arts Theater, 288 Anfu Rd
Tickets: 150-280 yuan
(Shanghai Daily April 2,2008)