‘Shawshank’ in China, as You’ve Never Seen It Before

When a stage production of “The Shawshank Redemption” opened recently in China, it was cast entirely with Western actors speaking fluent Mandarin Chinese. But that may have been the least surprising part of the show.

That the show — an adaptation of the Stephen King novella that became one of the most beloved movies of all time — was staged at all seemingly flew in the face of several trends in China’s cultural sphere.

Chinese audiences’ interest in Hollywood films is fading, with moviegoers turning to homegrown productions. China’s authoritarian government has stoked nationalism and cast Western influence as a political pollutant. Censorship of the arts has tightened.

Yet the production reflects how some artists are trying to navigate the changing landscape of both what is permissible and what is marketable in China. And its success shows the appetite that many Chinese still have for cultural exchange.

“The Shawshank Redemption” — the story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder who defies prison officials’ tyranny and eventually pulls off a daring escape — has been a target for Chinese censors before. Mentions of it were briefly censored online in 2012, after a prominent Chinese dissident escaped house arrest and fled to the American Embassy. In general, the Chinese authorities have shown little tolerance for calls, artistic or otherwise, for freedom and resistance to injustice.

There were also logistical challenges. The production team wanted to use foreign actors to make the adaptation feel more authentic. But the number of expatriates in China has plummeted in recent years, making wrangling enough foreigners who could speak stage-worthy Mandarin — a small pool to begin with — even more difficult. China’s economic slowdown has also made audiences reluctant to spend on the theater.

All of which made the show’s arrival in China maybe not as tricky as a prison escape, but certainly not a sure bet.

“I did accept the project thinking, ‘This sounds like a great idea, if they can pull it off,’” said Mark Rowswell, a Canadian comedian and television personality who played Red, the jailhouse smuggler immortalized in the film by Morgan Freeman.

“But you have to be prepared, you just never know,” continued Mr. Rowswell, who is widely known in China by his stage name, Dashan. He has been performing in the country since the 1980s, when he was one of the few foreigners fluent enough. “You might do two months of rehearsal and the whole thing gets canceled.”

After initially slow ticket sales in Shenzhen, the show’s four-night run in Beijing last month, in a 1,600-seat theater, nearly sold out. The production had a rating of 7.8 on Douban, a crowdsourced review site, and a nationwide tour is planned for the spring.

Casts from overseas productions have long toured in China, and Chinese actors have played Mandarin-language adaptations of roles that originated abroad. But this was billed as the first Mandarin production to feature an all-foreign cast.

The genesis of the idea, in the production team’s telling, was simple: The “Shawshank” film was hugely popular in China, so surely theatergoers would want to see it, too. And since it was a foreign story, why not find foreign actors?

That seemingly straightforward calculus, though, created a host of questions about translation, both linguistic and cultural.

The director, Zhang Guoli, is a prominent Chinese actor and director who was trained in xiangsheng, a form of classical Chinese comedy. The 11 actors came from eight countries, including the United States, Finland and Russia. Fluency in Mandarin was more important than professional stage experience; the hero Andy Dufresne was played by James Clarke, a national director with the Australia China Business Council.

During rehearsals, actors had to reconcile a more vernacular style of theater often found in the West with Mr. Zhang’s classical training.

There were also thornier questions of adaptation, particularly, what would get by China’s censors.

The script the Chinese production used was a translation of a 2009 stage adaptation by two writers from the United Kingdom, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns. Both the 2009 script and the Hollywood film are filled with profanities and include explicit references to the sexual violence that Andy endures in prison.

The Chinese version used only mild profanity. One character used the word rape, but briefly. Unlike in the movie and original play, there was no mention of homosexuality.

During publicity interviews, the cast and crew leaned into the story’s theme of hope, without emphasizing freedom, said Yao Yi, the show’s producer, knowing the latter could be considered sensitive.

Still, other parts that may have been difficult to include in a contemporary Chinese play remained intact. Characters recited Bible verses. The overall plot — and its sympathetic portrayal of the prisoners — remained unchanged.

Stage productions are often less tightly regulated than movies, given their smaller audiences. Copyright laws also limited how much the production team could alter.

The use of foreign actors may also have reassured the authorities that it was “a purely Western story,” and “not an allegory after all,” Mr. Rowswell said.

Ms. Yao said she was confident audiences would be receptive to the story, too.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is still the highest-rated movie — of all films, not just Chinese ones — on Douban, showing that Chinese audiences had not entirely turned away from Hollywood, she said. And Chinese theatergoers especially were a self-selecting group, hungry for more international perspectives, she said. “People who go watch plays,” she said, “are looking for a kind of spiritual fulfillment.”

But cast members also acknowledged the need to adapt to Chinese audiences’ changing tastes.

Ben Hubley, an American who played the young inmate Tommy, said he hoped the production would be a “subtle but important” bridge between the United States and China amid deteriorating relations. Yet he doubted the show would have been as popular if it had merely been performed in English.

“It feels like the intention behind it is much clearer than just, like, a big American production coming in,” Mr. Hubley said. “I think we’ve gotten to a point where if you want to come here, your intention behind the project is super important.”

After one of the shows in Beijing, the question of how to categorize the production seemed far from many audience members’ minds. As the crowd — which included children, young adults and grandparents — spilled into the lobby of Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center, taking photos with cardboard cutouts of the actors and posing with prop beer bottles, several theatergoers said they went simply because they loved the movie.

Li Zuyi, a recent college graduate, said he at first hadn’t known the cast was foreign. He has seen ‘Shawshank’ more than 10 times — a still of Andy after his escape was his phone background — and he would have gone to see the play regardless.

But another audience member, Annie Dong, 28, said the novelty of seeing foreign actors speaking Mandarin had attracted her. She did want to see overseas stories “localized,” she said, adding that the script’s incorporation of Chinese slang made it feel more relatable.

She hoped eventually to see foreigners acting not only in adaptations of foreign plays, but in Chinese ones too. “This kind of cultural blending and collision is something I look forward to,” she said.

But the factors that made this production hard-won may continue to be an obstacle.

The number of Americans learning Mandarin has fallen in recent years, and the population of foreigners in cities like Beijing and Shanghai has not recovered from its drop during the pandemic. Many Westerners also remain wary of traveling to China amid its inward turn.

Mr. Rowswell was in Canada when he was approached for this play, and until then, he had not known when he would return.

“Perhaps it’s something that will become more difficult in the future, not easier,” he said of similar productions.