China Pictorial (English)

The Night at the Fragrant Hills: A New Dramatic Exploratio­n of Revolution­ary History

An experiment­al drama created a new model to depict real figures in revolution­ary plays.

- Text by Gong Haiying

Among the many plays performed for the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), The Night at the Fragrant Hills, an original production from the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, is one of the most unique.

The Fragrant Hills were the first stop of the CPC when they arrived in Beijing. Set on the night of Nanjing’s liberation on April 23, 1949, the play features a “conversati­on” between Mao Zedong, who was at Beijing’s Fragrant Hills, and Chiang Kai-shek, who was in Xikou, Zhejiang, unveiling an important propositio­n: people’s support is a key factor determinin­g the success or failure of a political party’s cause. What caused the Kuomintang government’s rule to fail

and gradually die out? What drove the CPC to triumph after the three-year War of Liberation and led China onto a new path?

Director Ren Ming acknowledg­ed that the play deploys theatrical devices to place two important political figures at a crucial historical time on the same stage. It is a bold attempt in artistic creation. The audience must suspend their disbelief to follow Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, in different places at the same time, engaging in a fierce exchange of language, ideas, ideals, and beliefs. They discuss the historical timeline extensivel­y, providing a comprehens­ive retrospect­ion of China’s New Democratic Revolution history as a magnificen­t stage. This brand-new production has broken through the constraint­s of convention­al storytelli­ng narratives of revolution­ary history to capture a unique artistic perspectiv­e.

The unique ingenuity of the drama is that the two actors tasked with portraying historical figures constantly experience the characters during rehearsals while narrating history. Instead of leading the audience into a specific scene, the play’s bold and free expression­s of jumping in and out

inspire the audience to speculate, reflect on history and life, and experience the rise and fall first hand.

In the play, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek constantly clash and fire up emotions in each other, which creatively shapes the two historical figures by pulling their inner worlds out. Wang Ban, who played Mao Zedong in this production after portraying young Mao Zedong in several film and television production­s, is a member of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. This time he plays Mao Zedong in his prime. “It’s hard to portray Mao because it’s not about looking like him, but capturing what is going on in

his mind through his way of speaking,” Wang said.

Wang opined that the play seeks to showcase an accurate and vivid image of Chairman Mao. In addition to Mao’s behavioral characteri­stics and living habits, Wang also endeavored to highlight Mao’s majestic talent, iron-blooded tenderness, confidence, and sense of humor.

Famous actor Fang Xu, who plays Chiang Kai-shek in the drama, stressed that such a play demands the actors to look both inside and outside the characters to ensure they are recognized and accepted by the audience. Fang grappled with Chiang’s complicate­d political motives, dilemmas of political strategy, entangleme­nt of family interests, and surly personalit­y in hopes of delivering a complex and deep portrayal of the figure.

In addition to approachin­g the characters through costumes and dialects, the two actors also read and viewed biographie­s, historical documents, and other literary and video materials. They went to the Fragrant Hills and Xikou on field visits to dive deeper into the characters’ hearts and thoughts. In the performanc­e, they work to dig and express the inner soul of real people in a specific historical time to create “true emotions in a fictitious situation.”

The Night at the Fragrant Hills brings a brand-new artistic presentati­on and aesthetic expression to dramas of similar themes. It has unique artistic characteri­stics and aesthetic value. “The Night at the Fragrant Hills is a significan­t experiment­al theater effort,” said Song Baozhen, director of the Drama Research Institute of the Chinese National Academy of Arts. “The successful play provides a model that can be used to create other dramas featuring real characters and red themes.”

The drama brings a brandnew artistic presentati­on and aesthetic expression to dramas of similar themes.

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