Once banned in China, Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption” had its much-anticipated debut as a stage play in the country’s tech capital Shenzhen on Jan. 4. Adding to its unusual status, the play is performed in Chinese by a cast of Western actors who are based in the Middle Kingdom.
Based on King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” the 1994 Frank Darabont-directed film adaptation “The Shawshank Redemption,” starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, became one of the most iconic and enduring movies for millions of viewers around the world. Thirty years later, it still regularly appears on lists of most popular films. Complete with corrupt prison wardens and a cunning jail break, the story closely observes a friendship and the fears of inmates who are being held in the Shawshank State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison.
The picture has had a bumpy history in China. While the original was made at a time when China had few modern cinemas and was importing minimal numbers of Hollywood films, it was later given prominence and played as the closing title of the 2005 edition of the Shanghai International Film Festival. But, following the real-world escape from house arrest by blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the U.S.-China diplomatic incident that followed, online searches for “Shawshank” were blocked on the Chinese internet and social media in 2012. The film’s anti-authoritarian leanings may also have fed into the temporary ban.
The new stage adaptation aims to move beyond that and portray a message of hope and endurance. It is directed by well-known actor and film director Zhang Guoli (“Back to 1942,” “The 601st Phone Call”).
The narrator, Red, is played by Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is better known by his Chinese name Da Shan. Beijing-born, U.S. actor Andy Friend (aka An Di), whose credits include Chinese blockbusters “The Wandering Earth” and “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” plays the corrupt warden Greg Stammas. Two other villainous antagonists Rooster and Hadley are portrayed by Shawn Patrick Moore and Matt William Knowles (“Asura,” “Son of the South”), respectively, while Australia’s James Clarke plays the hero Andy.
Zhang says he has translated the story’s western narrative into a unique cultural context for China. He is promising to deliver a linguistic evolution of the story with nuances from the two cultures.
“The play was translated from the English version and then adjusted using ideas from Stephen King’s novella as well as ideas from the film,” Knowles told Variety. “While play is still set in Maine, the characters all speak fluent Chinese and there is a blend of Chinese cultural ideas and phrases throughout to localize it for the Chinese audience.”
Zhang and Robbins previously worked together on 2011 Chinese epic film “Back to 1942” and the pair have since maintained a dialog, with Zhang keeping Robbins informed of preparations for the stage show. “When the producer first asked me to direct this play, you were the first person I thought of. As you may know, the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ is the most beloved movie for Chinese audiences. Your character Andy brings hope and inspiration. For this production, we have assembled a cast of actors from 7 countries, performing in Chinese on stage for the first time. We plan to tour 20 cities next year. I hope this classic work will continue to shine brightly on the Chinese stage, bringing hope and strength to the people,” Zhang said in a letter.
There have been previous stage adaptations. In 2009, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns were behind a version that premiered in Dublin. It later went on to London, New York’s Broadway and elsewhere.
The Chinese show is co-produced by the China Dream Live Entertainment and Longma Entertainment. “The Shawshank Redemption” will run in Shenzhen from Jan. 12-14, before touring to Shanghai (Jan. 18-21) and Beijing (Jan. 25-28).