Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

CIFCET: A sedate kickoff

Nehad Selaiha reviews the opening ceremony of the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre

CIFCET: A sedate kickoff
CIFCET: A sedate kickoff
Al-Ahram Weekly

The CIFCET opening night was markedly sedate, if not downright somber. Skipping the customary celebratory show, which in former editions (when the festival was simply called the CIFET) served as a festive prelude, creating at the outset a sparkling, convivial atmosphere, the festival got down to business at once. A concise address by its head, playwright Sameh Mahran, in which he reviewed the struggle to revive the festival, explained that the change in the title was prompted by a desire to include a wider variety of theatrical perspectives and reach a wider audience, announced the establishment of the festival as a separate organisation within the ministry of culture, paid tribute to the ‘founding fathers’ of the festival (sadly forgetting the name of Hoda Wasfi, who was the CIFET’s artistic director in its first two editions), and proudly announced that for the first time in its history the festival has appointed two women (Dina Amin and Mona Soliman) as its artistic/executive directors (another lamentable slip consequent on the earlier, above-mentioned one), was followed by a brief, adlibbed speech by the minister of culture, wishing the event a prosperous future. This year’s honorees were then promptly invited to the stage and amid storms of applause presented with trophies in the shape of a golden statuette of the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom and learning, the ibis-headed Thoth. This concluded the unprecedentedly short first part of the ceremony.

After a short interval, the audience was plunged headlong into serious, demanding theatre with a solid, two-hour, word-based production of one of the classics of modern Chinese drama. Though billed as ‘Experimental Theatre’ by its makers (who blazoned that description on the front page of the play’s English-Chinese programme handed out before the performance) and notwithstanding the fact that English subtitles accompanied the copious dialogue and narration, the Fujian People’s Art Theatre’s piece was a definite miscast for an opening ceremony. Not only was it too long and too verbal; it was also scenically static and austere, lacking colour and visual diversity. No wonder many in the audience, particularly those who did not read English, left halfway through, leaving those who did to wrestle with the maddening task of trying to follow the incessant, rapid flow of words on the screen and see what is happening on stage at the same time and missing much of both.

Unfortunately, apart from the traditional Chinese performances (popularly, though erroneously) known as Peking Opera, few people in Egypt know anything about Chinese theatre or have ever heard of Thunder Storm or its author Cao Yu. It is true that a synopsis of the play was provided in the programme; but not everyone could get a copy, or had the time to read it before the show started. Besides, it was printed in such miniscule type as to render it illegible without a magnifying glass; worse still, it was quite misleading. Written by the author himself, it gave an outline of the original play and not of the presented adapted version which omitted whole scenes, changed the beginning and end and added new bits written by the director. Though I was told later that the choice of Thunder Storm for the opening was meant to celebrate the Egypt-China year of cultural cooperation, I still thought it would have fared better away from the opening.

But taxing as this exposure to China’s Thunder Storm was, it was an experience not to be missed and had many compensations and rewards. It introduced to Egyptians for the first time one of the greatest playwrights of 20th Century China and a play generally regarded as a crucial milestone in the development of modern Chinese drama. Before watching Thunder Storm, I honestly confess, I had never heard of either. This sent me frantically searching for a copy the play and information about its author and was fortunately guided by fellow critic, Abdel-Nasser Hanafi, to Genevieve Andreas’s 2010 academic thesis, Cao Yu’s The Thunderstorm: Translation and Introduction and Chengzhou He’s book, Henrik Ibsen and Modern Chinese Drama, which dedicates the whole of Part III to the influence of the Norwegian author on Cao Yu’s plays and offers in chapter 9, entitled “Ghosts and Thunder Storm: A Reconsideration” (pp. 165-197) a thorough and illuminating comparison of the two titular  plays.

Cao Yu (1910-1996) wrote Thunder Storm in 1933, when he was only 23 and still at university. It was his first play and first appeared in the Chinese Literary Quarterly. Shortly after, it was staged in Jinan, and later, in 1935, in Shanghai and Tokyo. In 1936, it debuted in Nanjing, with Cao Yu himself in the lead role. It was the first modern Chinese play to achieve great popularity, critical acclaim and commercial success and it was on the strength of this success that the first theatrical companies for modern Chinese drama were established. Though the play owed part of its prodigious success then to its scandalous public airing of the topic of incest and is by no means free of technical flaws and limitations, it is generally credited with having helped in a fundamental way to consolidate and popularise the new Chinese dramatic form of huaju, or vernacular drama. As Genevieve Andreas notes: ‘As one of the first examples of the huaju dramatic style, it [Thunder Storm] represents a shift in the Chinese perception of drama and the influence of Western dramatic theory on Chinese playwrights’ – an influence that ‘had a long-lasting impact on Chinese art and literature beginning in the 1920s and continuing until today.’

Cao Yu wrote Thunder Storm in his final year at the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Tsinghua University where he read English and had access to Western drama in translation. Five years earlier, in 1928, he had performed in two Ibsen plays, impersonating Dr. Stockmann’s daughter in An Enemy of the People and Nora in A Doll’s House and directed a production of the latter play in 1931, playing Nora once more. (At that time, women were not allowed to perform together with men on stage – an ancient rule of traditional Chinese theatre that was then still observed.) Moreover, Cao Yu said once: ‘Reading all of Ibsen’s plays in English played an important role in my dramatic career,’ adding: ‘From Ibsen’s plays I realised that dramatic art can have various ways of manifestations. Characters can become so real and at the same time so complicated.’

As Chengzhou He has extensively shown in his above-mentioned book, Thunder Storm bears a strong resemblance to Ibsen’s Ghosts in terms of plot, themes, characterisation and technique. Both are attempts at writing a modern, realistic, domestic tragedy in the classical tradition, set at a transitional period in their respective societies and centering on the Biblical idea that the sins of the parents are visited on their offspring. In both, the dramatisation of this idea is used to expose the oppressive realities of contemporary society, its tyrannical patriarchal system and the hypocrisy and corruption of conventional bourgeois morality. Both plays use the technique of retrospective exposition, which dates back to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and other ancient Greek tragedies, to compress the action in twenty-four hours (in accordance with the hallowed Aristotelian rule) in order to show how the past haunts and shapes the present, propelling it relentlessly towards a future of doom and gloom. In both too, a rich pillar of society, outwardly respectable and upright, impregnates a servant girl then casts her off; two half-siblings ignorant of the fact fall in love; and a climactic revelation of the past ends in disaster.

The differences between the two plays, however, are equally, if not more, important and explain why Ibsen’s play comes across as a harrowing tragedy while its Chinese counterpart ends up as a deliciously gory melodrama, with three young people dead and two mothers stark, raving mad. While Ibsen strictly observes the unity of action, focusing on Mrs. Alving, who becomes the central consciousness of the play and the locus in which the tragic revelations unfold and produce their impact, Cao Yu disperses this focus among many characters who are rigidly divided into two generations, an older and a younger one, representing parents and offspring, and these are divided in turn into masters and servants. He also adds a secondary plot involving incestuous sex between a son and his stepmother and develops the romance between the two half-siblings into a full fledged sexual relation leading to a pregnancy. There is also a threat of murder, a potential for rivalry over a girl between two brothers and labour unrest in the form of a strike by the workers in a mine owned by the patriarch of the rich family, led by his second illegitimate son by his old servant. These additions allowed for passionate outbursts, tearful encounters, violent confrontations and hair-raising confessions.

 Written in four acts instead of Ibsen’s three, Thunder Storm tells the story of the mental and physical destruction of two related families of different classes as a result of incest and oppression. The main culprit is Puyuan Zhou, a morally depraved and corrupt businessman and mine owner. The said businessman falls in love with his servant Shiping (later, Mrs. Lu) and has an illegitimate son by her. When he marries a woman of his own class called Fanyi, much younger than himself, he keeps his illegitimate son Ping Zhou under his roof, kicking out his mother who is pregnant with his second son (Dahai) and she is later believed to have drowned herself.  But far from killing herself, she remarries a servant called Lu, who gives his name to her illegitimate son, and has a daughter by him called Sifeng. Meantime, Puyuan Zhou has had another son (Chong Zhou) by his lawfully wedded wife.

The two families come together when Lu takes his daughter Sifeng to serve at the Zhou household while her mother is away on a job. Both the sons of the family fall in love with Sifeng but she favours Ping. Unfortunately for her, Ping has been having sex with his passionate, frustrated, oppressed and thoroughly bored stepmother who refuses to release him, spies on him and finally sends for Sifeng’s mother to take her daughter away. When Shiping Lu arrives, she discovers that her daughter by Lu is in love with her son by Zhou; though horrified, she keeps the secret when Sifeng tells her she is carrying Ping’s child and asks them to go far away. But just as they are about to leave, Fanyi, having failed to persuade her son Chong to force his half-brother Ping to give up Sifeng or kill him, and driven out of her wits by the idea of Ping leaving her, calls her husband and confesses all. The father, in his turn, recognises in Mrs. Lu his old mistress Shiping and informs Ping that she is his real mother. At the same time, his second son by Shiping, Dahai, the miner, who arrives to kill Ping for dishonouring his sister, is also told the truth about his birth. Shattered by the discovery, Ping shoots himself, Sifeng runs out into the thunderstorm and is electrocuted by an uncovered wire, Chong meets with the same fate as he tries to save her, Dahai runs away in horror and despair and disappears for good, the two mothers go mad with shock and grief, and the old patriarch is left to mourn, alone and miserable.

Does the decimation of all the younger generation through the crimes of the representative of the corrupt ruling class reflect a deep pessimism on the part of the author about the future of China? Or is it simply part of depicting ‘a regime on the eve of its ruin,’ as someone has put it? Whatever the answer, the play is seen by many Chinese critics as reflecting the iconoclastic spirit that dominated the 1920s and ‘30s in China and ‘advocated the liberation of the individual from the patriarchal family and the emancipation of workers from capitalist exploitation.’

Director Dalian Chen’s version of the play was obviously guided by a desire to tone down the melodramatic character of the play. Towards this end, he cut out both the prologue and epilogue of the play, which are temporally set ten years after the devastating revelations of that distant, sultry, summer day, and take place in the Zhou home, now turned over to nuns to serve as a nursing home where the insane wife and mistress of the now aged and broken patriarch spin out the rest of their dismal days. Out too went all the trappings of realism in terms of set, costumes, lighting and music, and with them the socio-historical context of the drama. Save for one chair and a small screen flashing words to identify the location or express a thought, a theme, or a feeling (a method used in Brecht’s epic theatre, but probably has roots in the ancient far-eastern theatrical traditions on which Brecht heavily drew in devising his epic theatre theory and practice), the stage, framed on three sides with black drops and softly lit in pale blue-white light, was left completely bare. On two sides of the stage, right and left, the actors stood facing each other behind drums, which they themselves manipulated at intervals to accompany the action, alternating with excerpts of recorded, western classical music and some hymns.

The placing of the characters, with the members of the Zhou family (the masters) on one side and those of the Lu family (the servants) on the other, vividly reproduced on the visual level the deep class divisions that separates them, while the gaping, empty space in the middle, where they stepped out from behind their drums in turn to enact the tragic events, resuming their original places at the end of each scene, seemed like a deep chasm that threatened to swallow those who dared to cross the barriers of class and conventional bourgeois morality. The expressionistic style of the production was further underlined by the comments and narrative bits the director wrote and interspersed through the dialogue and monologues of the characters and the mode of their delivery, which seemed intended to break the dramatic illusion and distance the actor from the character he impersonated in true Brechtian fashion. The actors would be playing their roles in the style of heightened realism adopted in this production, then would suddenly freeze in a neutral pose and deliver the added bits in an unemotional, straightforward, matter-of-fact tone.

The costumes too, though uniformly and familiarly modern, diverged from realism and partook of the expressionistic bent of the direction. This was particularly obvious in the case of Fanyi, the adulterous wife of Zhou (superbly performed by the captivating Jingruo Tian), who is described as dressed in black in the original text but wore here throughout the performance a white wedding gown, presumably to express her yet unfulfilled conjugal hopes and her ardent search for a mate. The wraithlike figure of actress Xiaoyun Zhang, who played Sifeng Lu with charm and poignant naiveté, was encased in a very pale pink shirt, a short skirt of a faded, indistinct colour and very high heels – an unrealistic outfit for a servant on duty, but quite eloquent in marking her as a helpless, innocent victim. The costumes of the rest of the characters partook of the same muted, subdued colour palette that characterised the show, wearing shades of blue, grey, beige and brown. The lighting too was uniformly white except for one breath-taking moment when a beam of intense, fiery-red light suddenly shot down from above, like a sudden thunder bolt, and enveloped Sifeng to mark her death by electrocution. It was the only splash of a warm colour in the whole show and the effect was stunning and shatteringly ironical.

Dalian Chen’s version of Thunder Storm ends, as it begin, in Heaven, with the souls of Sifeng and Chong, the only innocent characters in the play, chattering merrily and happily dreaming of a new pure world, free of barriers, sin and conflict. This escapist conclusion was very much in line with the director’s attempt to universalise the setting of the play by removing the original socio-historical context of the action and placing it on ‘the stage of the world’, as it were, in a neutral, indefinite, a-historical space. This, however, had the negative effect of divesting the play of whatever little political significance or shy socialist protest it had and left me wondering if the director truly believed that peace, freedom and happiness can only be achieved in death.

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