Uttering the unspeakable
Chinese version of Blackbird uses diffracted language to explore a dark history
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.
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.
“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
(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