Teahouse

This adaptation of the modern Chinese drama Teahouse does not work. The original play, written by Lao She and first performed in China in 1958, had over 60 characters played by individual actors. The Y-Y Company has tried to whittle this down to two characters on stage, all while retaining the same narrative, this decision that has made the play completely incomprehensible. The resulting confusion is not aided by the English subtitles on screen, that accompany the Chinese acting, as they often skip past entire slides, leaving out whole sections of the already ropey narrative. The set design is quite elaborate, with authentic Chinese furniture and tea paraphernalia, but the huge backdrop of a projected moon moving through the lunar cycle is left completely unexplained.

There might be something in this performance for those who have seen the original play, but even then, it is likely only to be a badly translated written summary on a subtitle screen.

As well as being impossible to follow, the drastic reduction of actors has also taken away any semblance of drama or entertainment from the play. For the entire performance the teahouse manager Wang discusses with a long-standing member of his staff the memories they have of what went on at their premises at three points in Chinese history. Yet, despite both cast members being on stage at all times, there is hardly any actual dialogue.

Instead, for the first half of the play, because Wang says he cannot remember what happened long ago, the other un-named character recounts in monologue the individuals that used to populate the teahouse at the end of the 19th century, and then in the initial years of the Republic of China. We witness this for a while, scrabbling unsuccessfully to keep up with all the interlinking character names popping up on the subtitle screens, including very nondescript ones like ‘Trader’s Son’ or ‘Woman’. Then, Wang at an unexpected point states that he can remember what happened from there onwards. Here springs in the only switch in the play: Wang suddenly takes over the extended monologue, referencing from there on a time just after 1945 in the teahouse, and the other actor broadly remains silent for the remainder of the play.

There might be something in this performance for those who have seen the original play, but even then, it is likely only to be a badly translated written summary on a subtitle screen.  

Reviews by Jonathan Mayo

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The Blurb

Published in 1957, Teahouse is a masterpiece of modern Chinese drama. The narrative revolves around the Yutai teahouse in Beijing and focuses on the life experiences of the shopkeeper Wang. Teahouse mirrors the incredible social turmoil at three crucial moments in Chinese history relived in three acts, from the twilight of the dynastic era to the dawn of the People’s Republic of China. This adaption shift in perspective transforms the play from realism to hyperrealism: characters, plots and sets are all transformed and are rich with symbolic messages open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

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