Love Saturation [by James Wenley]
The sentiment is expressed by one character within Rhinoceros in Love that all love stories are the same. Certainly in mainstream western media we are constantly fed the boy-meets-girl-boy-eventually-wins-girl narrative. It was invigorating then to discover in Rhinoceros in Love a love story quite unlike any other I had ever seen. The visual spectacle, including the talking point of a flooded Maidment stage, is an obvious first distinction. Deeper is the alternate eastern cultural lens, a reaction against their own cultural myths. What happens when the boy cannot win the girl? Anti-hero Ma Lu’s relentless idealism cannot take no for an answer.
Rhinoceros in Love represents a ground-breaking avant-garde production in Chinese theatre: first performed in 1999, writer Liao Yimei and Director Meng Jinghui rebelled against traditional Chinese theatre convention to create a passionate, youth-driven, eye-popping extravaganza that inspired a generation to learn the play’s words as a “love bible”. Updated to orientate around the current AY Generation (Angry Youth), you can feel the exhilarating tension and reaction against thousands of years of theatre, and of culture.
Ma Lu is a rhinoceros keeper and is beautifully linked with his animal: stubborn, and alone. A poet and modern-day philosopher, he declares his love for his enigmatic neighbor Mingming, and becomes fixated on her ideal. He does everything in his power to win her, but she will not and cannot love him back. Ma Lu observes that if he were in the middle ages he would be able to go out to battle in her name, but in modern china there is no place for this romantic love, and his impulse is channeled into darker territory.
The playing style is often declamatory, actors simply facing the audience to deliver their lines, which creates something of an aesthetic elegance. A wider cultural landscape is sketched by the ensemble through song, stylised movement, and scenes from an off-beat point of view. It is a world through Ma Lu’s prism that is not quite sane: he is confounded by a diamond toothbrush salesman who offers two tooth brushes for the price of one, but refuses to sell him just one toothbrush. He takes non-sensical love training classes that provide him no practical help. Mingming makes no sense either: she loves another who mistreats her. Why won’t she accept all that he offers?
The flooding of the stage marks a turn into a fevered dream-like state, and the visual style of Rhinoceros is incredibly striking. Large sheets of plastic border the back wall and sides. A bed juts out into the first row of seating. Colour in lighting is introduced sparingly and precisely.
Although visually there is much to feast on the script still has primacy. There are surtitles either side of the stage for non-mandarin speakers, but the operation is unforgivably poor. The surtitles often no not keep up with the action, and most frustratingly of all, would quickly skip to catch up and we’d miss parts of the dialogue. The low quality operation of the surtitles detracted and distracted.
Rhinoceros in Love is the type of international show that only the Festival context can bring us. Catch it before it leaves us. It blew my eyes, and mind, wide open.
Rhinoceros in Love is presented by The National Theatre of China and plays as part of Auckland Arts Festival at the Maidment until 12 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe