Winning hearts, critics no easy act
Leonard Gershe's Tony-award winning play "Butterflies Are Free" (Hudie Shi Ziyou De) kicked off the Shanghai Drama Centre's Beijing tour last night at the Grand Chang'an Theatre.
In the following couple of weeks, the Shanghai ensemble will perform three additional plays - "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" (Chang Hen Ge), "Art" and "Beneath the Red Banner" (Zhenghongqi Xia) - for Beijing's theatre-goers.
As China's centre of culture, Beijing always attracts the best shows. But the capital's stages are seldom graced by such grand performances from Shanghai.
Six years ago, the company visited Beijing with three original plays, "My Darling, I'm Singing (Gexing Yu Xingxing)," "The Colour of Stocks (Gupiao de Yanse)" and "Love Foam (Aiqing Paopao)." The company was established by merging the Shanghai People's Art Theatre and the Shanghai Youth Drama Theatre at the start of 1995.
In the following six years, two more plays - "Shang Yang" and "Eleven Roses" - came to Beijing occasionally.
However, except for "Shang Yang," none of the early plays achieved a hearty response from local audience members and critics.
It was perhaps because people from different regions have very different tastes in terms of theatre, or perhaps because Beijing's audience is very picky.
Quite to the contrary, the Beijing People's Art Theatre and the Beijing-based National Theatre Co of China visited Shanghai every year and almost all of their plays won the hearts of Shanghai's theatre-goers, evoking passionate discussion about the different approaches in Shanghai's dramas and Beijing's plays.
It is a debate that will no doubt be rekindled during this latest foray by the Shanghai Drama Centre.
Modern Chinese drama, or huaju, or spoken play, was born in Shanghai.
On December 25, 1899, a group of students from Shanghai St. John's University performed a short spoken play during a Christmas party, telling the story of a landlord who offers bribes to become an official and after succeeding is removed from office.
The style was referred to as "new drama" and was the precursor to modern Chinese drama. "New drama" gradually became popular in Shanghai's colleges in the first two decades of the 20th century. Dozens of student drama clubs were established.
In 1923, Hong Shen (1894-1955), who studied drama in the United States, returned to Shanghai to organize a formal troupe. He rewrote and directed performances of "King of Hell" adapted from Eugene O'neill's "Emperor Jones" and "Young Mistress' Fan," from Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan."
There were also many active modern drama professionals at that time in Shanghai, including Ouyang Yuqian (1889-1962), Tian Han (1898-1968) and Xia Yan (1900-1995), who are regarded as forerunners of Chinese contemporary drama.
For a long time before the founding of new China in 1949, in Shanghai, the centre of economics and culture in eastern China, theatre enthusiasts with a mixed knowledge of Western drama produced a number of diverse plays from Western classics to original contemporary repertoires.
In 1950, the Shanghai People's Art Theatre was established and soon became one of the few prestigious modern drama companies in China. Its first two presidents, Xia Yan and Huang Zuolin, are prominent dramatists.
Another leading local drama company is Shanghai Youth Drama Theatre, which was originally founded as the Experimental Drama Troupe, and affiliated to the Shanghai Drama Academy in 1957.
It is well-known for producing Western classics by Shakespeare, Moliere, Ostrolovsky and Chekhov.
Shanghai has also produced many talented actors and actresses such as Li Jiayao, Zhou Yemang, Jiao Huang, Li Longyun and Xi Meijuan.
But in the last two decades, Shanghai's theatre scene has not been as prosperous as its booming economic situation. And it has paled in comparison with Beijing.
Compared to the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which enjoys great fame for producing works with pure and rich local culture and life, Shanghai's drama companies have failed to promote haipai, or Shanghai style, which characterizes the city's art, culture and literature.
Shanghai has no big contemporary playwright names such as Beijing's Gao Xingjian and Li Longyuan, neither revolutionary and promising young directors such as Meng Jinghui and Tian Qinxin, nor trademark repertoires such as "Tea House (Cha Guan)" and "The Warning Signal (Juedui Xinhao)."
What's more, every year a number of graduates from the Shanghai Drama Academy choose to leave theatre for the big screen or TV, or come to join Beijing's drama companies.
However, it would be wrong to write off Shanghai given the work being done to rejuvenate the city's theatre scene.
Following the tradition of staging Western classics, plays are continually being introduced from abroad.
Huang Zuolin (1906-1994), the second president of the Shanghai People's Art Theatre, did not stop studying Brecht during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
Zhang Yu, a fellow researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Art, said that in the last 20 years, Shanghai's theatre scene has read the main schools of 20th century Western drama.
A great deal of plays from abroad have been performed by both foreign and local companies in Shanghai, including "Waiting for Godot," "The Great Dod Brown," "Chairs," "The Red Shoes" and "Leitmotiv."
At the same time, the Shanghai Drama Centre has produced a number of acclaimed original plays such as "Shang Yang," "Beneath the Red Banner," "I Have A Date with Spring" and "Song of Everlasting Sorrow."