To Live – Modern Chinese Performance Art in Berlin

The play focused on a series of meaningful core scenes of the plot of the original novel: Xu Fugui, protagonist and son of a landowner, gambles away his family estate and risks the entire existence of his family. In complete poverty, Fugui is abandoned by his wife and little daughter, although both return to him later.

Fugui is conscripted by the Republican army and sent into the fight against Communist troops. He is captured, but eventually returns to his hometown.

Back home Fugui suffers further misfortunes, set against the backdrop of the most tumultuous decades of recent Chinese history. Fugui and his family experience the great tragedies of modern China.

During the steel-melting campaign in the 1950s, which was expected to boost China’s industrial strength, Fugui’s family – as everyone else at that time – is forced to give away even their last cooking pot. And, as if not enough, later on his son suddenly dies during a blood donation for a “higher ranking person.” It is more than an accident – the medical staff are unskilled and uncompassionate towards the lives in their trust.

In these tragic circumstances, Fugui loses first his son, then his wife, daughter and finally his beloved grandson. Misfortune seems to follow him like a dark shadow, although, in some rare moments, fortune smiles on him.

The last days of his life Fugui spends alone with an old stoic ox, in which he recognizes himself. “I named him Fugui after me, because we look alike,” he says. In the end, the protagonist’s will to live is the only thing that no one is able to take away from him.

Yu Hua and Meng Jinghui tell a touching parable of the capacity of suffering and the power of resistance of everyday Chinese people.

In a very natural but compelling way, the drama shows the differences between men and women in how they bear the grim burdens of that period of Chinese history. In face of misfortunes men drink, shout, and revolt. Women suffer too, but stoically, in silence.

Consequently, the audience remains stock-still when Fugui’s wife finally screams her anguish out to the world.

Without doubt the ironic hand of author Yu Hua is evident in every moment of Fugui’s story. Beyond the novel and continuing it, the play lays bare the folly and absurdity of human actions. Fugui escapes a landlord’s death because he had gambled away his riches; Chunsheng, the bookmaker who won Fugui’s land, is shot in his place.

A Long but Captivating Performance

The play lasted three hours without intermission. This imposed a real challenge to German audiences, who expect to refresh their minds and bodies during the intermission so they can enjoy the second part with renewed attention. However, this cherished habit was forgotten; there wasn’t even time to think about a break during the captivating performance. The play was intense from beginning to end.

Language barriers didn’t pose major problems, thanks to precise German subtitles projected at the side of the stage. The actors used language, high physical commitment and dance pantomime, accompanied by a sophisticated stage with multi-media installations, which helped convey meaning.

As an experienced dramatist Meng Jinghui knows how to keep audiences surprised, aroused and entertained. They can also expect amusing, odd elements on stage. From this perspective the performance was well worth the ticket price. Scenes like the appearance of the cultural revolutionary propaganda squad, which was exaggerated to the point of being grotesque, or the humorous dialogue with Fugui’s future son-in-law “Wryneck” were entertaining highlights.

Several scenes deeply moved the audience. The son’s death and Fugui’s shocking, devastated outburst marked an emotional climax to the play.

Huang Bo, who played the leading man Fugui, stood on stage for three long hours almost without break. During this time he deployed the whole arsenal of stagecraft. He mimed the young landlord obsessed with gambling as well as the completely destitute day laborer; he expressed grief, hope, joy, despair and resignation to fate.

Sometimes his character seemed like a wise guy or a merry prankster. Again and again Huang expressed his character’s indomitable will to live. Especially astonishing was the intensive physical commitment required, which Huang handled effortlessly.

But Huang’s brilliant performance also depended on the complimentary performance of actress Yuan Quan, playing Fugui’s wife. Yuan’s restrained and sensitive acting style complemented Huang’s powerful performance. In the end, all performers did impressive work and made the play a huge success.

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