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History under a new light

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-11-01 00:51

History under a new light

Gao Yalin plays Yu Rang, a member of Minister Zhi Bo's coterie in the Kingdom of Jin.

The Assassin (Cike) is one in a trilogy of Xu's historical dramas based on the legends of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). The other two tales are better known and therefore display more vividly Xu's brilliance in distilling historical episodes for the stage. The Counsel (Menke), a.k.a. The Orphan of Zhao, has a sharp focus on the orphan as a grownup who casts in doubt the notion that he is obligated to carry on the task of avenging his family, killed when he was but an infant. It is almost the flip side of The Assassin when tackling the subject of retribution. While most adaptations, including Chen Kaige's 2010 film version, elaborate on the gesture of sacrifice whether it is an honorable thing or an act of anti-humanitarianism to give up one's own child for the survival of a royal descendant Xu chose a less examined but more challenging angle: The royal orphan grew up with the nemesis of his blood relations, but they have been living like father and son.

Can he switch his loyalty as soon as he learns the truth? What if he refuses to? Either way, he is a traitor — to his ancestral roots or to the only father he knows and probably loves.

History under a new light

New theaters raising the bar for quality acts 

History under a new light

Eat, play, laugh 

The Emissary (Shuike) portrays Confucius as a traveling interventionist who intends to do good but often ends up with a wreckage of diplomatic failures. Unlike the ubiquitous depiction of Confucius as a saint who can do no wrong, the Master in this dramatization is downright human with no superpowers. He is more like a member of the contemporary intelligentsia who offers profound words on world affairs but lacks basic training in pragmatism.

There is a comic-tragic feel to the character that director Lin Zhaohua brought out into the treatment. Lin, a titan of stage direction, is responsible for two of Xu's plays, including The Assassin, while Yi Liming did The Counsel and another staging of The Emissary. The two productions of The Emissary were presented back to back, illustrating the two artists' different approaches yet at the same time establishing a link between them as the duo are often perceived as mentor and protege.

Xu Ying's lines are stylized, sometimes highly so, attaining an operatic grandeur. The stage direction is appropriately abstract, stripped of all superfluous details. Where both Lin and Yi depart from convention, they forfeit not only the familiar realism of Beijing People's Art Theater, where they once worked and are still associated with, but also the Peking Opera-style exaggeration often employed for period plays. There is a modernity in the staging that subtly corresponds to the complexity and relevancy in the texts.

Unlike traditional opera stories that cater mostly to the fan base, this trilogy is for the sophisticated of taste by asking tough questions and withholding easy answers. In that sense, it is Shakespearean in ambition if not in scale. The plays are taut, but they target the bull's eye and never pander to conventional wisdom in interpreting historical characters or events. They are quietly revolutionary.

The Assassin just finished a run at the National Center for the Performing Arts and will tour Tianjin on Nov 2 and 3. Both this one and The Emissary have toured Germany, and the whole trilogy is regularly revived, but often separately.

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