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Tissues a must at Chang weeper
www.chinaview.cn 2005-01-10 14:06:44

    BEIJING, Jan. 10 -- Rene Liu says whenever she acts the part of Gu Manzhen in the play "18 Springs" (Ban Sheng Yuan), she hesitates to go on stage because the role greatly challenges her and she feels emotionally exhausted at the end of the performance.

    You may or may not feel the same after this emotional roller coaster of a play.

A moment of drama in the stage adaptation of Eileen Chang's "18 Springs" (Ban Sheng Yuan) with Rene Liu playing the lead female role of Gu Manzhen and Liao Fan (rear), playing Shen Shijun. The play is running at Beijing's Capital Theatre until January 16. [newsphoto]
A moment of drama in the stage adaptation of Eileen Chang's "18 Springs" (Ban Sheng Yuan) with Rene Liu playing the lead female role of Gu Manzhen and Liao Fan (rear), playing Shen Shijun. The play is running at Beijing's Capital Theatre until January 16.(Photo:CRI)

    Before the play tours to Beijing, co-director Mathias Woo said it would be perfect if it snows when audience walk out of the theatre, because it was on a snowy winter day that he first watched the play at the theatre in 1980. He likes and always remembers the air that nigh. But he did not predict the "perfect" start when snow fell before the show began.

    As it snowed outside, it snowed on stage. Timing is everything. Gu's last words to her lover Shen Shijun are: "We can never go back to the past."

    She says it when they meet again by chance after they have been separated by destiny for 10 years.

    Creative adaptation

    Eileen Chang's love stories always fascinate her fans and some have tried to adapt them into movies, TV serial or theatrical productions. Even though most of the versions are criticized by Chang's fans and critics, others still try to give their version in some form.

    Co-director Edward Lam, a true fan of Chang who has worked on quite a few of her works in the 1990s, took up the challenge again two years ago with Woo to tell the story of "18 Springs" in their own way.

    "Lam talked to me much about the rehearsal of '18 Springs.' He directs it not for breaking something or following the fashion of adapting Chang's works. He challenges himself," says Danny Yung, artistic director of Zuni Icosahedron, a famous Hong Kong experimental theatre with which Lam and Woo work.

    Lam succeeds. The multi-media play produced by Zuni Icosahedron and the National Theatre Company of China made an acclaimed premiere at Hong Kong Kwai Tsing Theatre in November 2003 and was a hit in Taiwan last June. Now it is in Beijing and will run until January 16 at the Capital Theatre.

    It is a surprise to set Eileen Chang's 1930s tale of love and fate at a library.

    The set of 40-foot-wide and 12-foot-high bookshelf stands at the back;a long desk with several chairs are in front of the shelf; a big round clock hangs at the top right of the stage, in some scenes, it hangs higher and looks like a moon in the sky while other times, it is lower in front of the bookshelf as a clock at the library; a vase of yellow chrysanthemum is placed at the front left corner of the stage under a beam of cold light throughout the show.

    The library is the idea of Woo.

    "Chang's language is so impressive and detailed so as to express the characters' feelings, personalities and introduce the environment and scenes. The performers just have to read her words, which are spell-binding," says Woo.

    Lam agreed with his view and believes that Chang's language makes the play.

    "I was just fascinated by the language which inspired me to imagine a number of dream-like scenes," says Lam.

    He also emphasizes that after watching the movie and TV version of "18 Spring," he believes that only in a theatre could every unspoken word and inner mood be displayed.

    "To me, '18 Spring' is never appealing in TV and movie," he says.

    He claims audiences see every role played out at the library as the actors step onto stage with a book in hand or under arm. They sit at the long desk and open the book when they start their lyrics. And all the lyrics are the original words from Chang's novel.

    "Nowadays, very few people could sit down to read a novel quietly and mentally communicate with the author. But Lam and Woo do just that. They made a spiritual communication with Chang and also helps we audience to communicate with her through their show," says Meng Jinghui, well-known theatre director in Beijing.

    Devoted crew

    Taiwan's veteran actress Sylvia Chang makes a special contribution to the book-reading play. With her distinctive voice, she narrates many paragraphs without appearing on stage to indicate the role's mood or to push the plot along.

    Chang, a fan of Eileen recommended Rene Liu to act Gu. Liu gave impressive performance throughout the three-hour play, especially when she recites a 20-minute-long monologue to recall to Shen what happens to her after they are separated.

    "She is a gifted actress," commented Lam.

    In his direction, the acting is fresh. The players seldom face each other when they talk to each other. They do not talk to each other but each tells the story in the first person tone "I" or the third person "he" or "she." It seems they do not communicate with each other, even Shen and Gu, the lovers, have only one or two moments of eye-contact in the scene when they express love to each other.

    However, they do communicate with the audience, sharing their wishes, guesses, anxiety, happiness and depression as the story unfolds.

    Aside of the romance between Shen and Gu, Xu Shuhui and Shi Cuizhi's love is also touching.

    "At the beginning of the rehearsal, I could not really weep when acting and had to use eye-drops. When I gradually enter Shi's world, I myself was touched and I finally could sob very naturally before the debut in Hong Kong," says Hai Qing who plays Shi.

    The highlight wedding night scene is when Shi cannot help telling Shen that she knows they do not love each other but they can do nothing to break the marriage.

    Stage setting

    Director Woo's talent is mainly displayed on the clear-cut and symbolizing setting as well as the moving films he shoots and produces to be projected in between scenes.

    The long desk could be the office, or one's room, or the table at a restaurant, or the table of a wedding. Sitting shoulder to shoulder means the roles are at the same environment, if they sit at two ends, you know they are in two conditions.

    The bookshelf has two faces. When Shen and Gu are separated and the scenes change into each other's marriage life, it is turned around and on the back shelf the articles of daily use take the place of the books.

    For the films, Woo picks some emotional views in life to interpret the characters' mood.

    The mottled shadow of the plane tress, the crisscross wires and a corner of the gable of a big house, are all the common views when you raise your head to look over the sky, but they rightly reflect the heart-broken lovers' hopelessness. When they look down to the floor they see the heavy rain.

    The rain on the down-to-earth screen on stage appear at two scenes, one is when Shen is told that Gu has married Zhang and the other is that Shen once passes by Gu in the street, she recognizes him but he does not, she has no courage to meet him but has to run away. Although their figures gradually disappear at the back of the screen, their tears turn into heavy rain on the screen and cause snuffles among the audience.

    The roar of the train running on the tracks sounds nearer and nearer and then disappear. The train is symbolic of time-passing.

    At the end, in such roar of the train, Woo uses the film of the old Shanghai and Beijing and the new look of the two cities to indicate the motto "We can not go back to the past." Some parts are displayed in rewind mode-- people riding bicycles backward in streets. That is what we can do in a film but life is another case.

    It seems Beijing has nothing to do with the story which happens in Shanghai and Nanjing, so the film featuring Beijing's change is arguably not necessary. Woo's answer is that some old cities in Europe have never changed their look, but many Chinese cities change greatly even in 10 days. He wants to record the view today for the future.

    However it seems far from the story itself, though it also reminds one you can never go back.

    There are several themes in the show. One is the paradox -- love is only perfect when it has regrettable imperfections;

    Director Lam wants to express that one's personality decides one's love, and the tragic love between Shen and Gu results from Shen's defect in characteristics.

    "We can not go back," he says.

    (Source: China Daily)

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