When I first heard that Teahouse would be staged at the Esplanade as part of the Huayi Festival and by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, my interest was piqued. However, I was still unsure if I should catch it or not, being unfamiliar with this play and the group staging it. The tipping point came when my instructor for literary translation strongly recommended that we catch the play, full of praise for this particular work and the playwright. By the time I tried to get tickets, the Friday and Saturday night shows were almost sold out and it was rather difficult to get tickets. In the end, I had to make do with a Thursday evening show.
And the turnout surprised me. I bought second tier of tickets and was seated near Door 4. From where I was, I saw that the audience was as star-studded as the cast. Among the audience were Mr & Mrs Khaw Boon Wan, Huang Shinan & Pan Linging, Zhou Chongqing, and a host of other stage actors whom I know by face and not be name. And then I belatedly realized that this must really be huge for these stars to buy tickets and catch it incognito. I also recognise some among the audience to be Chinese teachers, whom I met as a student or while I was a teacher. Truth be told, I was overwhelmed by such a crowd; I was expecting this to be a low key play on a weekday night. It felt surreal… and only at the end of the play did I begin to comprehend why this play was of such critical acclaim.
For those unfamiliar with this play, Teahouse comprises three acts, featuring the same teahouse through three historical eras: Post-Reform Movement during the Qing Dynasty, Civil War during the Republic era & After the Second Sino-Japanese War during KMT rule. Through the lives of the teahouse owners and guests, we are given glimpses into lives of ordinary folk during these political upheavals. For those of us expecting a plot that adheres to the usual narrative structure, this play will disappoint. There is action aplenty in this play yet at the same time there is none, and you’ve really got to watch it to know what I mean. Each act is a snapshot of times, loosely related to the other, telling a story on its own and in tandem with the rest of the play. The depth and breadth covered in this one play truly blew my mind away.
A play is as good as its staging and I must say the staging is impeccable. The set is realistic and imbued with symbols of the times. From hooks on the roof for bird cages of rich royalties to the installation of a gramophone as a symbol of progress, to the final addition of beaded curtains at the entrance, each is a reflection of the times and valiant attempts to keep up with the times. The word “reform” is used liberally across the three acts, with the audience constantly reminded that China was undergoing change; yet the behaviour of the people show us that in actual fact, nothing changed. If anything did change, as far as the ordinary folk were concerned, life has changed for the worse.
The actors did such a realistic portrayal of the characters that I totally forgot it was a play. I was drawn into this teahouse and the lives of its people, as if I were there. My heart went out to them, recognising their helplessness and their sole simple desire to survive. Only as I was on my way out did I appreciate the acting because while it was on-going, the acting was invisible. Whether the actors were playing a young man, a middle aged man or an elderly, the body language was in keeping with the age, down to speech patterns such as talking pace and the uncontrollable twitching that comes with old age. Through these actors, the characters come to life and we are very much able to empathise with them, only to also realise that these characters continue to exist in our times. The political climate has changed, the way we dress has changed, how we use language has changed, and yet greed, corruption, covetousness, violence remain unchanged. And like the guests who flow through the teahouse, we continue to hope in our times, that things will get better, like those before us did. I guess I did get carried away.
Teahouse to me is a social commentary of times. It does not wax lyrical about political ideals or about the greater good. It merely demonstrated through the lives of the ordinary man on the street, the true state of affairs through each era in time. And I walked out of the theatre wondering, in the years I worked in Public Service, have we forgotten the person we are trying to help when we try to serve the people. Who are the people? Have we in trying to keep up with times lose sight of what is most important? What is most important? Survival? Humanity? I have no answers but thanks to the play, at the very least, I am thinking about these questions.
P.S. For those who didn’t manage to get tickets, here’s a trailer featuring the 2005 production in Singapore. Enjoy~
Note: This review reflects my personal opinion; it is not commissioned by any individual or organisation and no renumeration is sought and received for this review.