September 19, 2011

Rhinoceros in Love

September 18, 2011

OzAsia Festival
Adelaide Festival Centre
September 2-17.

Rhinoceros in Love
by Yimei Liao
National Theatre of China
Her Majesty’s
September 15.
Brisbane Festival
Powerhouse September 21-24.
Melbourne Festival, The Arts Centre Playhouse
October 6-9.

The OzAsia festival this year has had a special emphasis on bright young Asian culture with music popster Shugo Tokumaru, ska band Cool Wise Man, Japanese female DJ Likkle Mai, and mime performers CAVA. Also, in theatre, it has showcased Rhinoceros in Love, the now almost-legendary breakthrough hit from the National Theatre of China. Written by Liao Yimei and first performed in 1999 in Beijing, it was, she says in her program note : “a work from the impulsive, reckless days of my youth, written in a rebellious way, directed in a headstrong way, performed with a fearless disregard of anything that stood in our way. “

A lot has happened in twelve years and Yimei’s headstrong play, which in both style and content, challenged received opinion in Chinese theatre, has gone on to become a much admired example of the early avant garde. After more than 800 performances to a combined audience exceeding 1.5 million, this unexpected tale of unobtainable love has become yet another indicator of the rapid transformations occurring in Chinese society.

Ma Lu (memorably played by Zhang Nianhua) is a zookeeper in charge of a rhinoceros named Tula which spends its time standing in a dank pool dreaming of the African grasslands. This stubborn exotic creature is, it emerges, also a metaphor for Ma Lu’s own noble, but hopeless, devotion to his neighbour MingMing (the energetic Qi Xi) a young woman who is herself trapped in an unrequited and often abusive relationship.

The play is a boisterous, often sexually candid account of how the course of true love never did run smooth. But as Ma Lu and MingMing doggedly soliloquise their heroic courtly love, the rest of the world swirls around them. Director Meng Jinghui uses a series of chorus-like scenes to comment on and contrast the action, Ma Lu’s friends make fun of his plight , there are also skit-like scenes satirizing conformity : TV contestant culture, and hard-sell consumerism (buy one toothbrush, get two free !)

There is a pace and emotional urgency in the production, with its group choreography, taiko-style drumming and sometimes saccharine pop music, which is both familiar (like a zany version of Glee) and intriguingly strange. There are undoubtedly nuances and topical references which Australian audiences won’t quite get (although the international students sitting near me greatly relished them) and some of Meng Jinghui’s stage devices – flooding pools of water and the final scene cascade on the rebellious questor Ma Lu – are not new. But the vivacious energy of the performers and the sense of a young society speaking out, without concern for elders and authorities, is tangible and makes us curious for more.

Murray Bramwell

“Modern China as seen by a lovesick Rhino” The Australian, September 19, 2011, p.16.

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