The rainy season is upon us. For the past two weeks the skies over Shanghai have been grey and drizzly, with occasional downpours like angry outbursts of a mad god. This is a good time to escape the rainy day depression by exploring the world of theatrical entertainment that Shanghai offers. Over the past week I have seen two staged plays at Shanghai's Dramatic Arts Center (上海话剧艺术中心) on Anfu Lu. The first was an adaptation into Chinese of the play God of Carnage written by Yasmina Reza, which was performed in Zurich, London, on Broadway, and now here in Shanghai. The second which I saw last night was Lu Ding Ji 鹿鼎记, which I translate here as "Deer Cauldron Tale." This play started out at the Shanghai Drama Theater in 2008 and has since been shown all over China. It is back in Shanghai now and soon moving on to Taiwan. What a contrast between a contemporary story involving two upper middle class urbanite couples, and a historical drama involving a Chinese secret society, a happy-go-lucky son of a whore, and the Manchu Emperor Kangxi.
God of Carnage 杀戮之神
The setting is the posh living room of one couple, whose 11-year old boy lost his two front teeth in a fight with another boy. The parents of the boy who did the damage pay a visit to the victim's parents, who are at first very civil, courteous, and polite. However over time, each character reveals other aspects of their personalities that aren't so civilized or refined, to put it mildly. There is vomiting, yelling and screaming, and a bottle of rum passed around and consumed by all four characters. This is a black comedy in the best tradition of that genre. The play translated quite well into Chinese, even though the original names of the characters were maintained as well as the cultural and political references they make. The Chinese actors were superb. I was told by my wife that the actor who played Alain, the lawyer father of the aggressor who is always fielding calls on his mobile phone, is a very famous Chinese star of stage and screen. The woman who played Veronique, the mother of the hurt boy, who was writing a book about Darfur, is also a well-known actress. My wife didn't recognize the others but they were also very compelling in their roles as Annette and Michel.
Much of the content of their discussions, debates, arguments, and out-and-out fights had to do with the onus of marriage and parenthood, and the different ways that each person interpreted and played out their roles and responsibilities as father/mother/husband/wife. One of the most memorable lines was when Michel, who has been compelled to reveal how unhappy he is with his marriage to Annette, cries out 婚姻像个大海, 人人都急着想跳进去的,跳啊,跳啊,有很多苦日子在你面前 ("marriage is like a great ocean that everyone is clamoring to jump into. Jump, jump! Many bitter days await you!") This line drew a huge laugh out of the audience, who were in stitches throughout the play as the four actors traded barbs like a ping-pong doubles match, only most of the barbs were flying between the couples themselves. Interestingly, the audience was a range of ages--I saw many young couples and quite a few children but also plenty of older folks. Naturally the entire audience was Chinese. I was the only foreigner in the 200-seat theater, which is a shame given that there are plenty of other foreigners in Shanghai whose Chinese would also be good enough to follow this play and others put on by the Center. But in my years of going there I have rarely if ever seen other foreigners in attendance.
鹿鼎记 Deer Cauldron Tale
Based on a famous novel by Jin Yong, Godfather of contemporary Chinese knights errant fiction 武侠小说, this is what the Chinese call a "pigtail play" (辫子戏) because it takes place in the Qing Dynasty when men wore their hair Manchu style in queues. The hero, Wei Xiaobao, otherwise known as Xiao Guizi, is a happy-go-lucky son of a prostitute born and raised in the brothels of Qing China, who finds himself in the Forbidden City and eventually becomes the boon companion to none other than the great Kangxi Emperor. In a twist on the original tale, he is first recruited by Heaven and Earth Society leader Chen Jinnan to assassinate the Emperor in a plot to "defeat the Qing and restore the Ming" 反清复明. After befriending Kangxi he helps the young emperor to defeat his greatest opponent in court, the regent Oboi, who in Kangxi's early years held sway over the Qing court. He eventually leaves the Forbidden City with a Manchu princess Jianing who has been betrothed to a feudal lord in Yunnan, where Kangxi prepares to send troops to do battle with Wu Sangui, the famous turncoat general who let the Manchus in through the Pass of Mountain and Sea (shanhaiguan) to lay siege to the city of Beijing in 1644, after the rebel bandit Li Zicheng had occupied the city and forced the last Ming emperor Chongzhen to hang himself. In other words, the story is replete with references to real events in the history of the Qing dynasty. In Jin Yong's original story, Xiaobao assists Kangxi with all of his great achievements in consolidating the Qing empire, including his efforts to quell the Ming loyalists on the island of Taiwan as well as his negotiations with the Russian Empire that led to the Treaty of Nerchinsk.
The play greatly simplifies the story, and instead of chasing after seven women as he did in the original version, Xiabao only gets one girl--the princess Jianing. Toward the end of the drama, which went on for two and a half hours (a bit long to stay in those seats without an intermission) Xiaobao pretends to swear allegiance to Hong Antong, the leader of the Mystic Dragon cult (played by the same actor who played Oboi), but then tricks him into sacrificing his men, and as a result he and the princess are captured and kept in cages on a faraway island, where they are forced to eat only carrots (though the princess has kept a mantou on her person for emergencies), while Hong taunts them with a piece of shark's fin on which he munches. They eventually escape and finally Xiaobao gains his revenge on the Mystic Dragon leader. After their ship is sunk by the Kangxi Emperor's ship in a cannon battle on the high seas, Xiaobao and Princess Jianing find themselves doing an underwater ballet, complete with a great white shark. Hong joins them and swims after them, but Xiaobao manages to pull the shark fin out of Hong's pocket and shows it to the shark. You can guess the results.
The entire play was a farcical, nonsensical piss-take on Chinese mythology, tradition, and history. It was full of lowbrow humor with plenty of toilet jokes and many stabs at the eunuchs who populated the Forbidden City. I thought the lead actors were all wonderful and definitely captured the light-hearted spirit of the play. There were many hilarious moments that had the grand theater of 500 seats roaring with laughter. There plenty of references to contemporary pop culture including a few digs at the 3D blockbuster Avatar (such as one scene where two pig-tailed men share a final communication via their queues), and one hilarious scene where Oboi plays Kangxi like a puppet while Kangxi does a rap song in Chinese and English. The clever and ingenious ways that they manipulated the rather simple set and props, particularly in the Forbidden City scenes with their cast of moving red walls, make this show well worth seeing, even if you don't find the humor to your taste. As usual I was the only foreigner in the crowd, except for a German friend named Maia who came with me to see the show along with my wife. We have to thank Nick Yu, or Yu Rongjun, for giving us tickets to both performances. An old friend, and a central figure in the Center, he is one of Shanghai's outstanding playwrights, author of 30 plus plays, some of which have been performed overseas.