Performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre
The Centre For Performing Arts, Vancouver – November 10, 2016
One of the gifts of a great piece of art is its lasting relevance – that it captures the universalities of the human condition so poignantly and speaks to audiences beyond its native time, place and culture.
Teahouse, a play by contemporary Chinese writer, Lao She, which premiered in Beijing in 1958, is one such canon in Chinese theatre that is as historically accurate as it is a drama that reflects on key events through 50 years of Chinese history.
Act I of Teahouse takes place in 1898, and ends with the fall the Qing dynasty. Act II takes place 20 years later under the rule of the Republic, and Act III concludes the play 30 years from that, at a time of immense political and social volatility and the cusp of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. All events take place in a Beijing teahouse, a place of common gathering where stories of daily life from each era are expressed through dialogue and scenarios played out by a total of 35 actors portraying about 60 characters.
The main character is Wang Li Fa, the manager of the teahouse, played by Liang Guan Hua. Along with the character 4th Master Chang, played by Pu Cun Xin, and Qin Zhong Yi, played by Yang Li Xin, these three characters appear in all three acts. The sense of continuity achieved with these three characters is not only comforting through the societal changes that the play depicts, but they also serve as commentators who connect and reflect on each era.
During the Qing Dynasty, Wang’s teahouse is frequented by urban intellectuals and traders who take benefit from and delight in the influx of imported foreign luxury goods, including silk, decorative arts and opium. Meanwhile, the plight of the poverty-stricken countryside is largely dismissed, even as a peasant father who regretfully sells his daughter to the Grand Eunuch for a fraction of the price of a European timepiece, because he foresees no other means to feed her. Meanwhile, Qin is determined to build a factory to boost local manufacturing and to stop the encroachment of foreign power into the Chinese economy.
The Republic abhors the indulgences of imperialism and brings hope that political change will amend social ills. Wang’s wife embraces the new Republic with gusto, urging her husband to do the same and to instill the mantra of ‘reform’ into his life. But the political structure is rife with corruption, and favours betweens one’s friends and acquaintances become the towline that keeps everyone afloat.
In the last act, the pace struggles a bit, mainly due to the loss of many of the endearing and familiar characters from Act I and Act II (it is 50 years on, after all). In their place, we are hurriedly introduced to young, new characters – their sons – who happen to bear similar traits. This seems a unrealistic and a forced compromise for continuity in order to simply steer it to the final scene of philosophical reflection between old friends Wang, Chang and Qin, questioning the point of the social injustices they had witnessed and suffered in their lifetimes.
Each era is meticulously staged to ensure the way of speech, gestures and mannerisms, as well as the costumes reflect the respective era. Characters of the Qing Dynasty embrace traditional gestures like kneeling to greet nobility, while gestures of the Republic are pragmatic and unembellished. In the last act, young women saunter and smoke cigarettes like Hollywood movie stars, and the young men strike a brash, self-confident demeanour.
Fifty tumultuous years of contemporary Chinese history is a lot to capture, but Lao She whittles it down to a palatable three-hours. When Teahouse premiered in 1958, it was welcomed as a work of realism and rare satire; however, that fell out of favour during China’s Cultural Revolution. Among other intellectuals and artists of that time, Lao She suffered a beating from the Red Guards and shortly after, in 1966, at the age of 67, it was reported that he had committed suicide, though speculation exists of his real cause of death.
Tonight’s performance was just two days after the fallout that was the American election, and it is hard not to find similarities in the play – a large, disenfranchised population leading to major political upheaval. Most difficult to acknowledge, is that, by revealing the cyclical nature of political history, the play might foretell our future. While great art is celebrated for its longstanding relevance, such continued relevance also presents a bitter pill.