REVIEW / THEATRE
Beijing People's Art Theatre
A blast of cold wind from China's northern wild lands blew into the Esplanade Theatre last Saturday with a riveting staging of acclaimed playwright Cao Yu's Savage Land (Yuan Ye) by the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which performed Teahouse here last year.
A multi-layered stage design made of sticks of reeds on different levels gave audiences a glimpse of the rugged beauty of the Chinese countryside and set the stage perfectly for this revenge drama.
Written in 1937 by Cao Yu, who is also known for classics such as Thunderstorm, Savage Land tells the story of Chou Hou, played by movie actor Hu Jun, who returns home to avenge his father and sister, who were killed as a result of a conspiracy by a neighbour, Jiao Yanwang. Jiao had also caused Chou to be wrongfully jailed.
Chou returns to find that Jiao has since died and his sweetheart, Jinzi, is now married to Jiao's son Daxing. But Jinzi is unhappy in the family as her blind mother-in-law harangues her and calls her a whore.
Chou and Jinzi make plans to go to a faraway place. But he is haunted by the spirits of his father and sister and driven to make the Jiaos pay by killing Daxing and his baby son to make sure the Jiaos have no descendants.
Director Chen Xinyi eschews portraying Chou Hou, which means Avenging Tiger in Chinese, as a peasant hero who triumphs over feudal landlords. Instead, she asks if it is ever morally justified to kill.
In the play, Chou Hou struggles to bring himself to kill Daxing, a childhood friend, and asks the heavens after the bloody deed, why he feels no sense of relief or light.
It is a delight to watch the experienced cast bring to life this classic rural melodrama.
Hu Jun, a macho presence with his booming voice and broad torso, is less impressive though in quieter scenes of anguish; Xu Fan is lively and playful as Jinzi.
In the programme notes, Chen said she had tried to cast the usually reviled characters Daxing and his mother in a more sympathetic light. In this, she has very much succeeded with the sharp-tongued Matriarch Jiao, played by Gao Qian as a figure of pathos whose first instinct is to protect her family.
Pu Cunxin, who performed here in the staging of Teahouse last year, also lends an easy affability to the muddled but kind Daxing.
While the play is set mainly in fog and darkness, there are unexpected moments of levity and comedy such as the to and fro between the matriarch and the village idiot.
This fresh take on a classic play ruminates on how a blind obsession with revenge can rob people of their humanity and thwart the pursuit of happiness.