Monday, August 13, 2012


Cathay Playhouse present THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu at the Tom Mann Theatre, Surry Hills.

Cathay Playhouse is a Chinese theatre company that have just completed nine years of presentation in the city of Sydney. I attended, two years ago a performance of DI LING and EMPRESS DOWAGER CI XI by HE Ji-Ping, and was charmed and impressed. Firstly by the play, performed in Chinese with sub-titles, and, secondarily with the passion of the collective of, mostly, young artists, committed to the production, on stage, backstage and front-of-house.

This year the company presented THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu. I knew of it, vaguely, having read it when very young, and was mighty curious. Again, it was presented in Chinese with sub-titles. This play, written in 1933, first performed in 1935 in Jinan and with other productions quickly following in Shanghai and Tokyo, introduced Cao Yu as an important theatre writer at the beginning of an important moment in Chinese theatre. Cao Yu was born in 1910 and died in 1996, a career and life covering an amazing era in Chinese history. He was an active member of his theatre community throughout that long life when he could (Cultural Revolution and all - I cannot imagine his experiences, considering the general bourgeois tenor of his work).

THUNDERSTORM is influenced in form and subject matter by Western writers that were part of the University study of the period. Cao Yu was 23 years old when he wrote this play. The Greek writers, Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Eugene O'Neill, and, very strikingly, Henrik Ibsen are apparent in this work and others: SUNRISE - 1936; THE WILDERNESS - 1937.

The play concerns the tragic consequences of two families, one high caste and the other of the servant class, becoming embroiled in mutual sexual attraction and the hypocritical behaviour engendered consequently, with secrets and emotional angst, part of the societal construct of the time and period, obfuscating simple human needs. The play is stacked with coincidence and steeped in melodramatic incident , the most shocking being the revelation of unsuspected incestuous contact. The play became a "success de scandal" because of this subject matter and has been criticised over its clumsy dramatic structure. And, true, it is burdened with one too many revelations in a very swift (short) time frame, but it did strike me, remarkably as dense (and stunning) as Ibsen's GHOSTS, and I was impressed with the sub-plot political critique it offered concerning the struggle between the workers and management - very Gorky-like.

To see this Chinese play of the 1930's, written during the War Lord period of unrest, before the invasion by Japan in1937, for the first time, was a re-kindling of the revelation to me of the inter-connectedness of the world's cultures and the fascination of seeing how each of the worlds, in this case East and West, were affected by each other and have grown and benefited from those encounters. I was engrossed with this kind of wonder, whilst at the same time impressed by the dense, if over burdened plotting, by the young Cao Yu.

I was, too, struck by the mostly Chinese audience, I saw the production with, who found some of the writer's affects essentially humorous and was curious as to whether it was a kind of gasping shock or contemporary cynicism. Which it is, I haven't being able to decide. For there was a reverence and a sense of suppressed excitement about the ritual of the performance, I think, that gave this audience a kind of emanating rapt glow in watching this work in their own language, and a sense of depth and prideful ownership. It was a privilege to be part of the witnessing of the performance.

It was, then, a very complicated experience for me, but highly valued. I enjoyed the Cathay Playhouse performance enormously, as I did two years ago.

The design elements (Set, Sherry GAO Xing; Lighting, Bob Xi Bing) were relatively simple, although I noted that the Sound Design (Sharon LIU Shang-Shang) was especially evocative and dramatically cogent. The Director, Wang Hui-Li has managed to draw performances of some sophistication from all of this small cast : SK Zhang; La Ba; Denise Ye; Lucy Huang; Gordon Guo; Adam Sun; Evan Gong; Dennis Wang. The characterisations and the aplomb with which the actors handled the dramatic revelations of the writer were impressive because of the embodied belief and disciplines. I enjoyed the class distinctions and the sophistication of the theatrical 'drawing' of that by the cast, especially Adam Sung as Lu Gui; Gordon Guo, who, as the tragically enmeshed elder brother, Zhou Ping, was impressive and was well contrasted by Evan Gong in the gauche innocence of his character, Zhang Chong, the younger brother.

The play was adapted for film by Zhang Yimou in 2006, and set in the Imperial Court of the Tang Dynasty: CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I must hunt it out.

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