Gar­den show

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By ZHANG LEI and ZHOU FURONG in Suzhou [email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

One can feel a bit of chill in the air at 8 pm out­side the north gate of the Canglang Pavil­ion in Suzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince. But one soon for­gets it as the hero Shen Fu and his beloved wife Chen Yun ap­pear on a boat. Ac­com­pa­nied by a melo­di­ous flute, the two step out of the boat to be greeted by their but­ler.

The im­mer­sive the­ater ver­sion of the Kunqu Opera Six Chap­ters of a Float­ing Life, based on the book by Shen Fu starts in front of the gate. As they walk up a stone road to Canglang Pavil­ion, the two per­form­ers — Zhang Zhengyao from Jiangsu Per­form­ing Arts Group’s Kunqu The­ater play­ing Shen Fu and the ac­tress Shen Guo­fang, as Chen Yun — are fol­lowed by the melody, as well as the sound of the wind, foot­steps, and whis­pers in the gar­den.

The play­wright Zhou Mian does some­thing re­mark­able in this play. It should re­ally be called an “im­mer­sive gar­den” opera, for this is “Kunqu Opera plus gar­den”, a joint ef­fort by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment and Yu Theatre Com­pany, a the­ater pro­duc­tion com­pany based in Nan­jing, which spe­cial­izes in the in­tro­duc­tion and co­op­er­a­tion of for­eign dra­mas. The gar­den ver­sion of the opera not only cre­ates a clas­si­cal style and setup for the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Kunqu Opera, but also sets it on an au­then­tic stage.

Shen Fu and his beloved wife Chen Yun used to live in the street near Canglang Pavil­ion. Built in the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960-1127), and en­listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage in 2000, Canglang Pavil­ion is the old­est among Suzhou’s ex­ist­ing gar­dens.

The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ing of Suzhou na­tive Shen Fu (1763-1825) is known for its acute por­trayal of love, in con­trast to the usual Chi­nese clas­sics that mostly cen­ter on the grandeur of royal fam­i­lies and heroic fig­ures.

The show Six Chap­ters de­picts a mar­ried cou­ple whose lov­ing re­la­tion­ship stands out from the pa­tri­ar­chal norms of the time. Al­though Kim Hunter Gor­don, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and trans­la­tor of the play, be­lieves it’s more com­plex than that.

“As a char­ac­ter, Shen Fu has this boy­ish reck­less­ness about him. Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing dif­fer­ence be­tween him and other male char­ac­ters on the tra­di­tional Chi­nese stage is that this is his own first-per­son nar­ra­tive,” he says.

The cou­ple were com­fort­able and el­e­gant, liv­ing the “Suzhou lifestyle” that finds con­tent­ment in na­ture and ev­ery­day life.

The drama is di­vided into five parts: “Spring Fes­ti­val”, “Sum­mer Light”, “Au­tumn”, “Win­ter Snow” and “Spring Again”. Sim­ple pic­tures of life in Suzhou are in­ter­wo­ven with Shen and Chen’s af­fec­tion­ate re­la­tion­ship. Show pro­ducer and founder of the Yu Theatre Com­pany, Xiao Yan, hopes that ev­ery­one can ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty of Suzhou gar­dens and Suzhou opera through this play, and feel the ex­quis­ite el­e­gance and charm of Suzhou-style life.

“Six Chap­ters of a Float­ing Life is not only a per­for­mance, but also an im­mer­sive per­for­mance in Suzhou gar­dens, in­te­grat­ing cul­tural and cre­ative prod­ucts, mak­ing the per­for­mance part of ‘gar­den life’, ‘art life’ and a one-stop view­ing pro­gram for the re­fined and el­e­gant ‘Suzhou’ lifestyle,” Xiao says.

The show tries to con­vey the book’s love of life, the will­ing­ness to spend time and en­ergy to go deep into ev­ery de­tail, to in­vest in it and en­joy the at­ti­tude of life.

“This was the Suzhou lifestyle for the literati at the time, but it is a lifestyle that many peo­ple want nowa­days,” says Xiao.

In ad­di­tion to nor­mal gar­den ver­sion of the Kunqu Opera, the pro­ducer also in­tro­duces an abridged ver­sion for younger au­di­ences. There are also plans next sea­son for an English ver­sion, in which a his­tor­i­cal for­eign char­ac­ter ap­pears in 19th cen­tury Suzhou as a guid­ing nar­ra­tor to the au­di­ence. The 30-minute in­ter­ac­tive ses­sion which an­swers ques­tions from the au­di­ence plus 60-minute per­for­mance is staged ev­ery Fri­day, and the 30-minute in­ter­ac­tive plus 30-minute abridged show is per­formed ev­ery Wed­nes­day, Satur­day and Sun­day.

The opera has be­come a win­dow for vis­i­tors to un­der­stand Suzhou cul­ture and the Suzhou-style life in the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911).

Gor­don says there is a cer­tain uni­ver­sal ap­peal to an evening per­for­mance in a beau­ti­ful gar­den. “As for the play it­self and its re­la­tion­ship to both Shen Fu’s orig­i­nal work and Chi­nese cul­ture more broadly, we’ve thought re­ally hard about how to use sub­ti­tles to make it more ac­ces­si­ble to in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences in the most ef­fec­tive and con­cise way pos­si­ble,” he says.

The in­no­va­tion of stag­ing Kunqu Opera in one of Suzhou’s most fa­mous gar­dens has breathed new life into the tra­di­tional art form.

“The nor­mal the­atri­cal me­chan­ics of mi­cro­phones, elab­o­rate light­ing and an eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble back­stage and wings are re­placed with the gar­den set­ting. But the big­gest dif­fer­ence is that it brings the ac­tors closer to the au­di­ence. This is chal­leng­ing but also in­vig­o­rat­ing, both for them and the au­di­ence. The prox­im­ity makes the de­tail in the singing, move­ment and fa­cial ex­pres­sion much more ap­par­ent,” Gor­don says.

“The spe­cial thing about this pro­duc­tion is that it’s set in the very gar­den next to which Shen Fu grew up and where he and his wife Chen Yun first set up home. It was an im­por­tant place in their life. In one episode in the book, Shen ar­ranges for them to visit the gar­den in pri­vate. While much of the lay­out, scale and ar­chi­tec­ture of the present gar­den has changed since then, the cur­rent pavil­ion is the same one that they vis­ited. So by com­ing into the ac­tual set­ting of their story, the au­di­ence is in­vited back in time into the book it­self.”

In do­ing so, peo­ple can find some el­e­ments in the Kunqu Opera that are con­nected with life, and the an­cient art form can con­tinue to re­new its new charm. The “Kunqu plus gar­den” ini­tia­tive gives a new lease on life to tra­di­tional Kunqu Opera and brings to life Shen’s fa­mous work.

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