Critics roast daring new version of Teahouse

Teahouse, being staged in France under a huge four-tonne wheel symbolising history crushing the Chinese people, also features live Chinese rap and techno music.
Teahouse, being staged in France under a huge four-tonne wheel symbolising history crushing the Chinese people, also features live Chinese rap and techno music.PHOTO: XINHUA

AVIGNON (France) • Dozens of people have walked out of a challenging new version of a classic Chinese play staged in Avignon, France, since last Tuesday, which was played under a huge four-tonne wheel symbolising history crushing the Chinese people.

Chinese novelist and playwright Lao She's epic masterpiece, Teahouse, recounts the tumultuous first five decades of the 20th century through three generations of a Chinese family. It was one of the most hotly anticipated shows at the Avignon festival.

But the new version of the saga about social injustice, hunger and corruption took a critical bashing, with French daily Le Monde comparing its "over-the-top special effects" and live Chinese rap and techno music to something that one might see in a "naff stadium rock opera".

Pioneering Chinese director Meng Jinghui - who described himself as "a bit of a rebel" - is one of the first to dare to overhaul the text since it was first staged in 1958.

Lao, one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), is a mythic figure in Chinese theatre.

Meng said: "You have to change, take a new look... The version created by director Jiao Juyin in 1958 was excellent but it is a bit outdated. No one dares to touch it and when it is performed in Beijing, it still pretty much plays to full houses."

Lao is seen as something of an artistic martyr and a symbol of the talent lost during the Cultural Revolution. His death in 1966 remains shrouded in mystery, with many contesting the official account that he killed himself after being humiliated and paraded through the streets by Red Guards.

"Lao She has a soft spot for each individual. There are many little people in the play, each with his own dreams, imagination and fantasies," Meng, 54, said, adding that he wanted to explore the relationship between collectivism and individualism.

Lao's characters were "strong individualists", said the director, who sees a "deep link" with Chinese society today.

The daring new version of Teahouse - which will tour China later this year - comes at a time when government scrutiny and censorship of the arts and the entertainment industry is tightening under President Xi Jinping.

A push for more Chinese Communist Party-friendly content has seen regulations introduced that require film-makers to be handed a "dragon seal" of approval before films may be screened at festivals abroad.

Zhang Yimou, one of the country's most famous directors and the maker of Raise The Red Lantern (1991), was forced in February to withdraw One Second from the Berlin film festival.

Another Chinese movie, Better Days, that had also been scheduled to show in the German capital, failed to get the go-ahead in time from Beijing.

At the Cannes film festival in May, the premiere of Summer Of Changsha went ahead despite the unexplained absence of its production team.

"Artists are like children - they need to express themselves," Meng said. "There is always relative freedom. Sometimes it opens up, sometimes it closes again. But we'll get there."

"Of course, there are lines that should not be crossed," he added. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep on creating."

He insisted that Chinese theatre is actually becoming "very dynamic and is asking lots of questions".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2019, with the headline 'Critics roast daring new version of Teahouse'. Print Edition | Subscribe