Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts

To forget or to remember?

Fan Kuang-yao (left) and Chu Jr-ying put on a moving performance as a pair of lovers separated by the events of the Chinese Civil War.
Fan Kuang-yao (left) and Chu Jr-ying put on a moving performance as a pair of lovers separated by the events of the Chinese Civil War.PHOTO: ESPLANADE

Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land is a meditation on memory, love and loss

REVIEW / THEATRE

SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND

Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts

Performance Workshop (Taiwan)

Esplanade Theatre

Last Saturday

In the two plays-within-a-play of this production, the lead characters have something in common: They remember the past and wish they could forget.

In the first piece, a man who flees China for Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s cannot let go of the lover he has left behind, even as he builds a new family and life. In the second play, a hapless fisherman abandons his cheating wife and stumbles into Shangri-La. After a blissful few weeks in paradise, he is still unable to relinquish the past and wants to return to his hometown to fetch his wife.

Memory is a curse on human beings, but it also gives life its highs and lows, its texture and meaning - that is one of the bittersweet observations powering this legendary production by Taiwanese theatre guru Stan Lai.

A meditation on memory, love and loss? That does not sound like a recipe for a touring blockbuster akin to the Cats or Wicked of the Chinese-speaking world.

But Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year and is still going strong. A sold-out version played at the Esplanade 10 years ago and, this year, it also packed the halls at the art centre's Huayi festival.

So Singaporean audiences bear a not-so-secret love for this classic. But does it live up to the hype about its emotional power? That it is so funny and sad that, at points, the dialogue can barely be heard above the sobs and laughter from the stalls?

The answer is a measured yes. To be fair, the show has its flaws. Some of the characters are painted with embarrassingly broad strokes. There is one particularly annoying one wandering around that could be excised. The soundtrack is manipulative. There are lame jokes that go on for too long and the meta-theatrical elements have lost their transgressive currency 30 years on. Now, the play-within- a-play set-up is not cerebral, but strictly middlebrow.

And yet it is powerfully profound. For me, this play is Lai's strongest for two reasons. First, it is structurally elegant, combining two imperfect plays into a larger whole. It has a sense of formal necessity that his later works rarely achieve.

Second, it presents a unified field theory of his oeuvre - his later works plough and deepen the grooves this seminal production has opened. For example, the human costs of the cross-straits separation were fleshed out in The Village (2008). The Buddhist-inflected trope that life is like a dream and that all is impermanent was elaborated more intricately, but less efficiently, in the eight-hour marathon A Dream Like A Dream (2000). If there is one Stan Lai play you have to watch to understand his work, this is it.

The plot centres on two theatre troupes that have booked into the same venue for rehearsals. The first is putting on a tragedy called Secret Love, about a Kuomintang sympathiser Jiang Bin Liu (Fan Kuang-yao), who left China for Taiwan to escape the Communists.

Although he eventually weds a Taiwanese woman (Fan Jui-chun), he never stops missing his old flame Yun Zhi Fan (Chu Jr-ying). Finally, on his deathbed, he puts out a newspaper advertisement looking for her.

She comes. A cool, formal conversation ensues. Before long, her hand is already on the door. And that is when Jiang, in a small voice, utters the devastating line that liquifies the insides: "Zhi Fan... all these years, have you ever thought about me?"

The second company is preparing for Peach Blossom Land, a ribald, acrobatic show about a fisherman who enters paradise by chance. Old Tao (Tang Tsung-sheng) is a loser who cannot catch fish or manage the simple task of uncorking a wine bottle. Getting cuckolded by his wife Chun Hua (Chang Pen-yu) and his landlord Master Yuan (Chu Chung-heng) is the cap to his life's litany of humiliations.

While trying to do away with himself, he accidentally enters a peach tree grove. There, he finds two white-robed characters who look exactly like his wife and her lover. Chaste and nature-loving, they have no memory of any existence before their nirvanic lives. They welcome him into their house like a brother.

In alternating scenes, the two companies take turns to rehearse and, in one hilarious segment, share the stage. Chaos and hilarity ensue, but also a kind of miraculous alchemy.

The plays, both featuring love triangles, seem to be cracked mirrors of each other. Despite their contrasting tones, they live in the shadow of a broken world of imperfect relationships, one person loving the wrong person.

Both pieces also pose an important question about memory: Is forgetting better than remembering? In Peach Blossom Land, people have no historical memory. They mention something about their ancestors being "refugees of ancient wars", but cannot say who those ancestors are. Their amnesia provides contentment, but their situation is also patently absurd. Their sense of bliss and gratitude is so unreal that they thank water before it is drunk.

But is remembering necessarily better? Unable to forget his wife, Old Tao returns to a mortal world where everything is rotten, ugly and corrupt. Jiang clings to the beautiful memory of an old lover and this results in a stubborn withdrawal from his present marriage.

The production does not commit to either pole, but it is certain about one thing in this vale of tears: the fate of human beings is to remember. And thus the show dances between the two extremes of attachment and surrender, performing something remarkable my yoga teacher once told me: "To survive, you breathe into the pain."

All this is, of course, only possible with support from a cast with a superhuman commitment to their roles, whether it is tapping into deep wells of love and longing in Secret Love or executing the relentlessly frenetic physicality in Peach Blossom Land.

Together, they create a full-blooded, collaborative dream that ends dramatically with the huge background curtain falling to the floor. Their versatile and full throttle performances have the effect of bringing out another "secret love" in this show, and that is one for the theatre - and long may this torch burn.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'To forget or to remember?'. Print Edition | Subscribe