Mao debunked: Revolution is a tea party

Timeless/timely parable from Beijing People's Art Theatre

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With censors riding high and all dissent squelched, intellectuals at the time (those as yet unjailed) seized on Lin’s shows as some of the few glimmers of hope left. They’d haunt the RenYi portico bidding wildly inflated prices for scalped tickets.

I could never quite work out how Lin got away with it. Maybe it was his established artistic eminence (and perhaps a few friends in high places). But there was always a sly deniability about everything he touched. How could he be blamed for the medieval parables of Shakespeare or Dürrenmatt or Goethe?

Public relations in warlord China. Photo: 北京人艺

With Teahouse he seems to have managed a similar canny cop-out. After all, as our neighbour on the ticket line pointed out, isn’t the action entirely confined to the dystopia of pre-Liberation China?

Nevertheless, the implicit critique of present-day ills is baked right into the very structure of the play.

Over the course of three acts, the script traces the half-century decline and fall of Beijing’s Yutai teahouse, a microcosm of societal rot and the noble futility of good intentions. Details of décor may change over the decades, but Teahouse tells us that underlying human corruption and injustice will always find new ways to end-run any attempt at reform.

And Lao She makes this case so vividly that it seems fancifully naïve to suppose the pattern would abruptly end in 1949, or confine itself to the Middle Kingdom.

All the more startling, then, that China, in the increasingly authoritarian era of "Core Leader" Xi Jinping, should stump up hefty state stipends to project such a message abroad. Even with packed houses at $40-240 per seat, ticket sales could hardly cover the costs of the 40-member troupe, with its elaborate sets, props and costumes.

Artistically, at least, the lavish outlays paid off. With its elaborate interleaving of sub-plots, Teahouse has more in common with, say, Sean O’Casey’s early tragi-comedies than China’s usual touring repertoire of state-sponsored operatic or acrobatic spectacles. T

To bring it off, RenYi recruited many top-tier stage, film and TV actors. Ingenious lighting effects, hair-trigger prop shifts and costume changes and make-up wizardry all played a part in credibly ageing the characters fully half a century in the course of a two-hour performance.

But ultimately it was the lyrical realism of Lao She’s lines that sustained the action.

Delivered in rapid-fire Beijing argot, the script was rendered all-too-fleetingly in English and ideographic surtitles above the stage.

This made the dialogue especially hard for non-Chinese speakers to follow; no wonder I counted barely half a dozen gwailo (foreign devils) in the opening night crowd.

That’s too bad, for the text presents an incomparably compressed social history that Westerners need to grasp to better understand the underpinnings of our own contemporary world. The fictional Yutai teahouse, the play’s setting, represents the last survivor of a once-dominant social nexus.

Back in the late 19th century twilight of imperial China, such teahouses were where Qing dynasty subjects – rich and poor, gangsters and grifters, courtesans and literati, colonizing Manchus and starveling peasants – would all intersect to cut deals, gossip, beg, brawl, brag, and show off their caged songbirds.

Think of the Yutai scene as something like the Cantina in Star Wars or Rick's Café Américain in Casablanca, but with everyone sporting silk skullcaps and pigtails.

Scurrying from table to table, Yutai’s young boss (played with gruff bonhomie by Chinese TV star Liang Guanhua) tries to keep all his disparate guests happy – no easy task, given the variety of “types” that Lao She has so cunningly drawn.

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