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Epic Chinese fiction takes the spotlight on stage

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-05-19 01:54
An Ordinary World is a play adapted from the Mao Dun award-winning novel of the same title by Lu Yao.  provided to china daily

The Modern Drama Valley theater festival in Shanghai opened with An Ordinary World, a play adapted from the Mao Dun award-winning novel of the same title by Lu Yao, on May 5.

The novel is about the life struggles and choices of several young people during the 1970s and 80s when many changes took place in Chinese society.

"The characters and stories are so real that many middle-aged people in China shared similar memories in their real experience," said Meng Bing, a playwright who has presented his creations at the Drama Valley for three years.

"I am very impressed with the festival's diversity and artistic quality, and I am greatly honored to be invited again," added the 62-year-old who has won many national theater awards.

The lengthy novel, which contains more than 1 million Chinese characters, was the winner of the national literary prize in China in 1991. According to the China Writers' Association, the host of the Mao Dun Literature Award since 1981, An Ordinary World was one of the bestselling books among all the prize winning works, with more than 3 million copies sold by 2015. The novel was even made into a TV series twice, in 1990 and 2015.

Last year, Meng's adaptation of White Deer Plain (Bai Lu Yuan) turned out to be such a success that the production, also by the Shaanxi People's Art Theater (SPAT), was performed more than 100 times during its tour of China. Meng said during a lecture at Fudan University that "the adapted play has been successful because the original book is great, and when the adapted play is not good, it is because the playwright didn't do his job".

Theater goers in China are often young people born after the 1980s, said Meng. As such, the stories of An Ordinary World can be hard for them to understand.

"I think it opens a window to the youth of their parents. After watching the play, they would find that what they take for granted now used to be big challenges, and what is considered trivial today was once a matter of life and death," he said.

"The play would make you realize how far we have come and how Chinese society has developed. It was a difficult route and everyone who went through it has paid a heavy price with their tears, hardship and emotional trauma."

The Shaanxi People's Art Theater is based in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province. Meng summarized the company's style as "simple and realistic" and particularly adept at working with serious subjects.

Historical subjects such as White Deer Plain and An Ordinary World have been a great challenge for the young actors of the company, said Li Xuan, director of SPAT. In order to help them with their work, she took 80 actors to the countryside where they could spend time away from the conveniences of urban life.

"They learned to tell the difference between leek and wheat plants, and how to bake potatoes. But after repeated attempts they still failed to ignite the stove to properly cook a meal," she said.

"When they went back to reading the scripts, they found themselves understanding their characters much better."

After two performances at the Majestic Theater in Shanghai, SPAT will go on to perform An Ordinary World in other parts of China. The theater hopes to put up 200 performances this year.

Meng said that he would continue working with SPAT in the future to bring to the stage more plays rooted in the area.

"Shaanxi has very rich literary resources. This region has produced a lot of outstanding writers in the past decades. Many of their works, such as the novels of Jia Pingwa, can be taken to the theater stage," he said.

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