Ut­ter­ing the un­speak­able

Chi­nese ver­sion of Black­bird uses diffracted lan­guage to ex­plore a dark his­tory

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Sun Shuangjie

In the play Black­bird, 55-year-old Ray is shocked when he re­ceives a visit at his of­fice from 27-year-old Una. He hasn’t seen her in the 15 years since he was con­victed and im­pris­oned for hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with her. At the time, she was 12.

Since leav­ing jail, he has changed his name to Peter, moved to an­other place and started a brand-new life. The 90-minute play un­folds as a tor­tur­ous con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the two.

Black­bird, which won the Lau­rence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2006, was writ­ten by Scot­tish play­wright David Har­rower in 2005. Har­rower is one of Scot­land’s best-known writ­ers, with works that in­clude Knives in Hens, Pres­ence and Kill the Old Tor­ture Their Young.

The first pro­duc­tion of Black­bird was per­formed in 2005 by Ger­man direc­tor Peter Stein at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val. It was later shown at the West End Al­bery Theatre. Both pro­duc­tions were ac­claimed by crit­ics and au­di­ences.

In the fol­low­ing years, the play has been per­formed in coun­tries in­clud­ing Swe­den, the US, In­dia, Australia, Spain and South Africa.

French direc­tor Clau­dia Stavisky from Célestins, the largest and old­est theater in Lyon, put on a ver­sion of the play in 2009, which was hugely popular.

She was re­cently in­vited by Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­ter (SDAC) to put on a Chi­nese ver­sion of the play at the venue, star­ring Zhou Ye­mang as Ray and Yang Ziyi as Una.

Com­plex is­sues

Stavisky calls it “a very spe­cial story, which re­sem­bles a thriller,” and says she fell in love with the script the first time she read it.

She says that, while the play is about a pe­dophile and the girl he as­saulted, it also ex­plores deep, uni­ver­sal top­ics such as youth, sex and love.

In the play, the two char­ac­ters talk through the “immoral” ex­pe­ri­ence they had 15 years ago and what kind of lives they have had since.

For Stavisky, the story is not about mak­ing moral judg­ments or preach­ing an ide­ol­ogy. She said it “touches upon a wide range of so­cial phe­nom­ena and is­sues such as our legal sys­tems, so­cial ser­vices and the life of dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple.”

Zhou Ye­mang, who plays Ray, said, “The story is very pow­er­ful as it digs deep into hu­man­ity and the writer knows how to cre­ate dra­matic ten­sion.” A vet­eran ac­tor of SDAC, Zhou has per­formed in such plays as Faust, King Lear and The Song of Ever­last­ing Sor­row.

When he first read the script, Zhou felt at a loss be­cause the text was full of pauses, rep­e­ti­tions and in­ter­rup­tions. He spent a lot of time try­ing to un­der­stand the lines and find the logic that linked the frag­ments.

Un­ut­ter­able things

“Some­times, words do not flow but come in dis­or­dered ut­ter­ances, es­pe­cially when peo­ple don’t feel calm,” said Zhou. “But we can dis­cover how the char­ac­ters feel through their hes­i­ta­tions and in­ter­rup­tions.”

The Chicago Reader said of Black­bird’s text that “Har­rower knows how to dis­till the frac­tured syn­tax, half-com­pleted sen­tences, stut­ter­ing rep­e­ti­tions and preg­nant pauses of con­ver­sa­tion into a stark, styl­ized, nerve-jan­gling po­etry.”

Stavisky is also at­tracted to the style of the text, but ad­mits it is a big chal­lenge for ac­tors in terms of mem­o­riza­tion and de­liv­ery.

Zhou com­pared the flow of the text to play­ing an African drum, which can range from re­lax­ing to hugely pow­er­ful with just slight al­ter­ations in the pace and rhythm.

“I think au­di­ences will be con­stantly ex­pect­ing to hear ‘the roar­ing of drums’ dur­ing this play. They will then be re­warded with a sur­pris­ing fi­nal scene,” added Zhou.

Date: June 19 to July 12, 7:30 pm from Tues­day to Satur­day, and 2 pm on Sun­days Venue: Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre Ad­dress: 288 Anfu Road

288 Ad­mis­sion: 150 yuan ($24) to 380 yuan Call 6473-4567 for de­tails

Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre

(Above from left) Zhou Ye­mang, who plays Ray in Black­bird, French direc­tor Clau­dia Stavisky, and Yang Ziyi, who plays Una. (Left) A poster for the play

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