Beijing Ren, reputedly playwright Cao Yu's personal favourite, has only recently found popular acceptance through the Bejing People's Art Theatre Director and Playwright Li Liuyi. But it would be a mistake to assume that Li's take on Cao Yu's classic is an easy ride for audiences. For one, it is 185 minutes long. Beijing Ren is also unrelentingly bleak. Throughout the play, an oppressive atmosphere of hopelessness builds up gradually, until it climaxes in a paroxysm of despair, curtains closing on a chilling tableau of deathlike figures wearing expressions of hopelessness. It is as if there is no difference between the living and the dead.
Adding to the ghostly atmosphere is the spectacular set - a courtyard of a traditional Chinese house, constructed entirely out of flaking paper, lit by an eerie low light. The structure has the cold, decayed air of old bones. It is set on a 15 degree incline, which makes the actors move awkwardly and disorientates the viewer. The soundtrack comprises dread-inducing atonal melodies and operatic wails, infrequently punctuated by zither strumming. The script resounds with references to coffins, old age and dying, and news of pregnancy is greeted with alarm.
It is in this nightmarish environment that Li tells us the story of the decline of the Zeng family. Once home to a wealthy family, the crumbling walls of the Zeng family residence now house a generation of soft, idle men. Li adopts death as a potent symbol for what he terms the "pale, disheartened and morbid" feudal culture of China in 1937 - a time of upheaval when traditional structures were being overturned. But Li's focus is less on social critique than on delineating the emotional landscapes of the characters who are stuck in this moribund structure. And what a landscapes these are. Caught in an excruciating web of inaction, the characters speak in erudite ellipses that belie their impotence. The actors often speak facing the audience, and each wrinkle of pain, each plea for release, rings true. From the aged patriarch, Zeng Hao, to the flabby eldest son Wenqing, to the scheming daughter-in-law Siyi, to the self-sacrificing Cousin Su, each of Cao's characters is richly fleshed out with their unique undercurrent of despair. Although their destinies are practically devoid of hope, the conscientious rendering of each character's interior complexities is fascinating.
An especially powerful figure is the patriarch Zeng Hao (Chou Xiaoguang). While he is, on the one hand, a benign central force holding the family together, he is also obliviously selfish and prone to eccentric self-indulgences, such as repeatedly lacquering the coffin meant for his death. Zeng Hao's moral emptiness symbolises the decadent feudal culture that Beijing Ren loves to hate. This duality is masterfully fleshed out by Chou, whose character switches from a manipulative tyrant to a petulant old fool with a few modulations of voice.
Cao's mastery of language is presented with elegance and subtlety by
a solid cast, who bring the audience deep into the consciousness of
his characters. This makes for an intense experience that is not far
removed from well executed melodrama. When the aged Zeng Hao, in a last-ditch
measure to salvage the family's dignity in the face of mounting debts,
entertains the supremely wishful thought that things might take a turn
for the better from now on, Chou's shrill, wavering voice belies the
hysteria of self-doubt running through his false optimism. When Zeng
asks his grandson Zeng Ting (Miao Chi) to affirm the thought, the seventeen-year-old
Zeng Ting's choirboy voice, resonant in its naïve conviction, is
Given its solid fundamentals and talented cast, I bet Beijing Ren could have delivered its great climax even without three hours of foreplay.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /