Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dream of a Red Mansion

Beijing Evening Press
Interestingly enough, Beijing has a pretty hot theatre scene, though linguistic and cultural barriers will probably keep it from ever taking a spot on the world stage. Last night I went to the closing performance of Zhang Guangtian's new play, Dream of a Red Mansion, which has generated more than a little controversy in Chinese cyberspace.

A hot topic in Chinese media is the upcoming production of the Chinese classic novel for television. The TV station announced that it would be holding "American Idol" style open auditions for the leading role, and the controversy over that has generated a lot of publicity for the film long before production even began. To add to the mess, the director has adamantly refused to work with any actor selected this way, setting off a big media fight. Most people in the culture scene, though, see this as just another publicity stunt, and they're probably right.

With impeccable timing, Beijing playwrite Zhang Guangtian knocked out a script for a play of the same name. A few months ago, I met him in an incident that almost immediately slipped my mind. A bunch of cultural and media folks were sharing drinks in the courtyard of the Jianghu bar, and we started talking about all of this Red Mansion controversy. He said he was working a script for a contemporary take on the novel, and had come out to smother his writer's block in cheap booze. People started talking about what the book meant to them, mostly talking about the poetry of the writing style and the intricately woven plot lines that play out in the Red Mansion, the ornate home of a large, wealthy Beijing family.

I gave him the western take on the book, which is that the book, as beautiful as it is, is obsessed with the petty intrigues of old China's moneyed elite, and is totally detached from the social reality around it, which, being a folk novel, was probably a deeply veiled social critique. I said that if the political climate were different now, one could make a great play by recasting the characters as the children of high level cadres and well connected captains of industry in latter day China.

Apparently he took my words to heart. I returned to Beijing to find that the play had generated a lot of controversy. The director saved me some tickets to see the play, and even posted a bluntly paraphrased version of our conversation in his blog, quoting me as the "American Imperialist" who had challenged him to take a radical and socially critical approach to the novel. My friends joked that I should go down there and demand my royalty check.

I finally made it to the play last night, and I have to say that it really rocked, though rumors of my influence were widely exaggerated. Of course a lot of it was over my head. Language issues aside (the script was a mix of Beijing slang and classical Chinese), it was a real post-modern work loaded with symbolism and inside jokes. A lot of the symbolism was just way out of my depth. Why was the novel's protagonist, Jia Baoyu cast as a woman, and what's all that stuff about her thrashing around in a fish tank being whipped by goons in raincoats? See what I mean?

Overall the play was excellent, and I wish it was still on so I could try another crack at it. The book's author, Cao Xueqin, is a down on his luck spoiled child of low level officials. It follows him and his wife in a witty dialogue as they hammer out the idea for the book. Between their dialogue are surreal scenes of the book's characters as they take shape. But it goes much further than that. The play is loaded with lampoons of the Chinese media and the state of Chinese society, where fame is shamelessly capitalized and sex is nothing but a cash-only commodity. The play is also a musical, as Zhang Guangtian got his start writing scores for movies, including Zhang Yimou's excellent film, Shanghai Triad.

The play is sexy, hilarious, audacious and confusing. Though I don't think anyone quite understood the whole thing, the audience was repeatedly thrown into fits of hysterics as they watched contemporary society dissected on the stage.

Unfortunately, a lot of the controversy was misplaced. Most of it centered on the director having the gall to reinterpret the Chinese classic tome. It's as if it was a crime to be an artist, or do anything but a verbatim staging of the original. And a quick scan over irate comments on the blogs shows that most of these people didn't even bother to see the play. Though China's cultural gurus are breaking some amazing ground, the general audience seems far behind.

But there are rays of hope. The house was packed and everyone was totally entranced. The cast was extremely talented. I was especially impressed by Guo Xiao, who brought his impressive skills in Beijing-style comedy talk into his rendition of Lin Daiyu.

All in all, I see some amazing potential in the Beijing theatre scene, and I plan to watch it as it comes into its own. And of course, I plan to keep stirring things up with my American imperialism...

戏剧: Xi4Ju4 - Drama
红楼梦: Hong2Lou2Meng4- Dream of a Red Mansion
张广天: Zhang Guangtian
高干子弟: Gao1Gan4Zi3Di4 - children of high-ranking cadres
美帝国主义: Mei3Di4Guo2Zhu3Yi4 - American Imperialism
争论: Zheng1Lun4 - Controversy

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