Theatre review: Teahouse a Chinese historical tale with deep humanity

Review Theatre/TEAHOUSE

SINGAPORE - When I see the phrase "China's tumultuous history" in programme notes, I often feel suspicion coming on. There are just too many novels and TV drama serials, especially propagandistic ones in China, about its wars and revolutions, famines and earthquakes.

But I feel tears well up at the end of Teahouse, the play by celebrated Chinese playwright Lao She, which offers a window into half a century of upheavals from the last days of the Qing Dynasty to the looming Chinese civil war.

The funereal notes of the suona, the tossing of paper money and the ultimate emptiness of a once bustling teahouse make for a very powerful ending to a well-acted and insightful play that overflows with humanity.

Premiered in 1958, Teahouse is one of the most performed Chinese plays and a signature production of the Beijing People's Art Theatre. It was first performed in Singapore at the Kallang Theatre in 1986.

Through the changing fortunes of the teahouse owner Wang Lifa and the dozens of characters who cross its threshold, we get a glimpse of a wide cross-section of Chinese society.

We meet characters such as an eunuch who buys a bride, thuggish soldiers with provincial accents and a newly ascendant female gang boss dressed in aggressive red.

As befits a classic, the characters seem specific yet universal. For no matter how rulers and fashions change, opportunistic scumbags such as the pimp character, Pock-mark Liu, will be reproduced generation to generation. Ditto corrupt police spies or charlatan fortune tellers.

The vicissitudes of change chronicled in the play also underscores the fact that it is often individual lives that suffer in the midst of wider political upheaval. Different regimes may use different euphemisms to justify their actions, but there's no masking their greed and corruption in say, the wanton seizure of people's properties.

The play captures a sense of bitter resignation, especially among the commonfolk. As a morally upright character, Fourth Master Chang, laments, "I love the country but no one gives a damn about me."

A scene especially rich in bathos features Wang and two teahouse regulars Fourth Master Chang and Qin Zhong Yi, who have aged and suffered. They sit down to sip tea and eat peanuts - only to find that they no longer have the teeth to chew.

Teahouse proprietor Wang spends a lifetime soothing customers with a cup of tea, but his willingness to please and say the right things are not enough to protect him from losing his teahouse.

Wang, played by Liang Guanhua, handles the role with aplomb, with stand-out moments being the scenes where he looked away resolutely as he says goodbye to departing family members.

It is a treat to immerse onself in the thick Beijing burrs and piquant phrases such as zhe teng (roughly 'to struggle over something') or mei zhe (roughly 'can do nothing'), and to gaze out into the hutong outside, bathed in a fading yellow light.

Despite the large cast and extensive span of the story, the play of about 2.5 hours never feels long, and each of its three acts end with a bang.

On its opening night on Thursday, it drew many standing ovations from an audience that included Minister of National Development Khaw Boon Wan, former Nanyang Technological University president Su Guaning and MediaCorp actors Pan Lingling and Huang Shinan.

hoaili@sph.com.sg

Book it

TEAHOUSE

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: March 6 to 7 at 8pm, March 8 at 2.30pm

Admission: $48 to $128 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: Performed in Mandarin with English and Chinese surtitle