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Mao debunked: Revolution is a tea party

Timeless/timely parable from Beijing People's Art Theatre

End of the rope for "Old Hundred Names" Photo: 北京人艺

Chinese culturati queued up Thursday night, nearly 2,000 strong, for the first of two sold-out touring performances by China’s premiere stage drama troupe, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (北京人藝, or “RenYi”).

Conversation, in Mandarin, was hushed and reverential, as befitted the evening’s programme: iconic playwright Lao She’s signature 1958 masterpiece, Teahouse.

A fur-bedecked mother, behind us in line, explained to her daughter how the stage action would reflect the corruption, cruelty, cynicism and repression of the bad old days before Mao’s 1949 Liberation of New China.

Such things, she reassured the puzzled teen, could hardly happen in this day and age – let alone anywhere near here.

As she spoke, hundreds of Vancouverites streamed down Robson Street, half a block away, chanting “Fuck Trump.”And the pong of pepper spray still hung over Hong Kong’s Wanchai district, where police last weekend set upon over 10,000 demonstrators protesting China’s bid to void some results of the city’s latest legislative elections.

The advance publicity touted the Teahouse tour as a commemoration of the 1986 WorldExpo in Vancouver, which also marked the first – and heretofore only – time the play was performed in Canada.

Other – arguably more relevant – anniversaries went unremarked upon; 2016 also marks the 50th year since playwright Lao She took a page from his own Teahouse script  and committed suicide after being hounded to and humiliated by state-sponsored thugs in his own country.

Such awkward details are conspicuously omitted from the bio-sketches and chronologies in the touring production’s slick, ad-laden programme notes.

But the page on “Teahouse Key Events,” when correlated with a roster of Communist China’s ideological vagaries, hints at some of the underlying drivers of the script’s ups and downs over the years.

First workshopped at the onset of the late-1950’s “Hundred Flowers” liberalization, the play hit the People’s Art main stage (under RenYi founder Jia Jiyun and his co-director, Xia Chun) just as the movement was cresting.

After a five-year eclipse during the ensuing “Anti-Rightist” backlash, Teahouse re-emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous “Great Leap Forward.” But then the play and its author incurred the lethal wrath of Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

It wasn’t until 15 years later, after the final demise of CultRev tribunes Madame Mao and her Gang of Four, that the RenYi could mount an original cast revival in 1979.

Under Xia Chun’s direction it went on, during the “Reform and Opening” decade of the 1980’s, to enjoy a seven-country roadshow in Europe and Asia, as well as its Expo 86 premiere in Canada.

The script again fell out of favour, though, when China’s great national sphincter slammed shut after the June 4, 1989 “counterrevolutionary riot” (as it is euphemistically termed) in Tiananmen Square.

The original cast version limped through just a few more stagings before its final performance, to mark the RenYi’s 40th anniversary in 1992. It took another seven years for the company to turn the script over to its most celebrated enfant terrible, director Lin Zhaohua, for an all-new production with a fresh cast. Lin has a long history of shadow-boxing with China’s hysterically thin-skinned powers-that-be.

When I met him in the early 1990’s, in the hypersensitive aftermath of the Tiananmen “incident,” Lin turned his revivals of such repertory classics as Hamlet, Romulus the Great or Faust into barbed diatribes against the regime.

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