What the dickens would a Chinese who speaks very little English make of a theatre production of David Copperfield performed in author's language? Or for that matter of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in the language of the bard? A lot more than you might think, it seems.
TNT Theatre Britain has found that not only will Chinese people sit through – and thoroughly enjoy – such performances, but that given a choice between more modern fare and classics, which may well be harder to understand, they will go for the latter almost every time.
Paul Stebbings, the artistic director and founder of TNT, which is now touring China with David Copperfield, says that when the company first contemplated coming here in 2005 it did some research to find out exactly what Chinese theatre-goers would like to see.
Stebbings found that in late 1970s, one of the first TV dramas shown on Chinese was Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
"That was fascinating," he says. "We do different types of plays. We (have done) plays (in China) in Spanish, for example. We (have) found the major interest of Chinese audiences is classics."
TNT prides itself on its spontaneity and innovation, and it may be this spirit that has taken it to smaller cities such as Suzhou, Ningbo, Changsha, and Zhuhai, rather than limiting itself to the bigger centers, which is often the case with overseas productions.
That willingness to do something different by treading untrodden paths has paid off for TNT, which has attracted a legion of Chinese fans in far-flung places.
"We gave the first ever Shakespeare performance on Hainan Island," Stebbings says. "We had over a thousand people for Hamlet. We performed it in Zhuhai. We had the biggest-ever audience. Almost 4000 people (came)."
Dickens' reappearance in China nearly around 30 years after Oliver Twist's appearance on the small screen is well timed, coming in the year of the 200th anniversary of the English author's birth. The first performance of TNT's David Copperfield in China was at Nine Theater in Beijing in late March and it will tour China in April.
Chinese audiences watching a TNT production will be given a helping hand in the shape of subtitles or surtitles, but from there they are on their own.
"We put subtitles (on) … which allows anybody to enjoy the play even if (they) do not speak a word of English. But generally we find the audiences laugh because the actors speak, not because the subtitles are funny."
TNT first adapted David Copperfield for the stage in 1995, and some modifications were made.
"I think we put a bit more emphasis on the psychology of the characters," Stebbings says. "We kept all the music; there is a lot … I was interested in some other elements, mainly just (changing) the story telling … and getting the balance between comedy and seriousness.”
What particularly makes the production of David Copperfield stand out is the live music.
"I think theater should bring together all performing arts," Stebbing says. "So physical movement … some productions are more dance based than others. Visual, music and text. I am trying to create something out of all of them. We have two actors play the violin, one plays the accordion, one plays clarinet and they all sing … And all the music is composed just for this production."
Stebbings is now working on another two plays, including one about the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya.