RAW: OzAsia – Rhinoceros in Love – National Theatre of China

Rhinoceros in Love – National Theatre of China – Her Majesty’s Theatre – 16 September 2011

By Julia Loipersberger

It is unsurprising that one of China’s most iconic plays should have attracted a large audience of Chinese expats and curious Western theatregoers, all of whom filled Her Majesty’s Theatre with an exciting pre-show buzz. Performed in Beijing for the first time in 1999, this experimental drama has attracted many followers in more than 30 Chinese cities and been performed over 800 times.  Needless to say, I was excited to gain such an insight into modern Chinese performance culture.

I will admit that this truly was an experimental and unusual play. Part comedy, part heavy tragedy, with elements of a musical and – at random and unexpected times – components of a gameshow, it was beautifully acted but very difficult to follow. In large part, this was because much of the performance appeared – quite literally – to have been lost in translation. In addition to the difficulty of following the English subtitles for the Mandarin performance (the location of the screens meant that often one had the choice of watching either the performance or reading the translation), the performance contained a plethora of cultural ‘in’ jokes and references, which half of the audience found riotously hilarious but the other half did not appear to follow – myself included.

The play’s two main characters, the lonely rhinoceros keeper Ma Lu and his beautiful and irresistible neighbour Ming Ming, were supported by a cast of friends and apparently random characters, who appeared to fulfil the role of a modern, pseudo Greek chorus. Although this added to some of the performance’s more poignant – and some of the more translatably hilarious – moments , it also added to the general confusion and meant that it was at times even more difficult to follow plot and character developments, meaning that even at the end of the play it wasn’t entirely clear what had actually happened.

Nonetheless, there were significant highlights to the performance, not the least of which was the phenomenal set design. Having once seen a minimalist stage with both a banquet-table sized treadmill, puddles of water and torrential rain, I’m not entirely sure that I will ever be able to fully appreciate an ordinary stage design with only a table and two chairs again. Similarly, the powerful performance of the lead Nianhua Zhang was nothing short of heartrending, particularly in the final scenes when the extent of his torment is revealed.

Overall, Rhinoceros in Love was a frustrating experience – I could see a beautiful and tragic story simmering just below the surface, but it was diluted and confused by too many unravelling threads.

Definitely a unique experience, ‘Rhinoceros in Love’ is best left for true fans of experimental Chinese theatre.

Kryztoff Rating    2.5K

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