The adaptation of Lao She’s novel 四世同堂 (The Yellow Storm, or Four Generations Under One Roof **) to the stage was well-received at its recent performance in Shanghai at the Grand Theatre. I was at the performance on April 15, and really enjoyed both the acting and certain technical aspects of the performance (with the exception of one spotlight that was handled pretty badly).
I have not read Lao She’s original novel, so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation this show is. I can say that it is an outstanding piece to watch onstage, though. The acting was exceptionally good, and the story line is compelling.
I was thoroughly impressed with the set. It was a perfect mix of complexity and simplicity. Made of a series of moving panels (which reminded me some of George Chang’s apartment in Hong Kong featured on the video linked from my previous post), the set allowed for numerous different configurations that allowed the audience to see the scenes both inside and outside of two different houses. The back panel was beautifully arranged to sometimes serve as a doorway to a third home in the Beijing hutong, but also as a street out of the neighborhood, when the stage was lit from the back, allowing the images of characters behind that section of the set to be seen clearly.
The movements of the set were likewise well managed and efficient, making for nearly seamless scene changes. It struck me that the way of taking care of the set was very like most Chinese people live in their every day lives (getting things done quickly by finding a simple way around/through complex situations), though it was very unlike what you often see on the Chinese stage — which all too often features elaborate fixtures that are not really quite necessary (reminding me of dealing with officialdom in China, as opposed to the way ordinary people live their lives here). All it took was a simple rolling out or rolling in of a movable partition, and audiences were taken into and out of the homes of various families. Within each home, a second movable partition could be likewise moved to show various rooms within the home. And it was all accomplished with little effort or distraction, allowing the action to go on as the scenery morphed around the characters. (There’s another analogy for life in China to be found in that, but I shall not follow that digression.) In the scene change that most impressed me, two women were quarreling in the home. One began to “chase” the other around the table, which was managed in a very small space by the actions of the two women. Rather than actually doing much running about or chasing one another, they stood on opposite sides of the round table, moving it to right or left between them to give an illusion of more movement than was actually taking place. As they did so, they also subtly moved offstage as the “chase” progressed, giving way in the process to the next scene, which picked up as soon as they disappeared into the wings. It was handled with the sort of verbal dexterity and physical sleight-of-hand that is common to some of China’s traditional forms of onstage comedy.
The real beauty of the set, though, lay in its ability to highlight the real conditions of life in the Beijing hutong of the Japanese War days. This is always an important part of any drama set during the time — capturing the bitter life lived by the average people at the time — and of Lao She’s writing in general (and he is exemplary of a certain stream of Chinese literature). At the same time, it was a wonderfully inventive way of capturing the relationships of the characters through the manipulation of the spaces they inhabited. I was very impressed. The simple movements of walls worked to illustrate the fluctuations in relationships, and small acts of spying on one another through the cracks in those moveable walls — which happened several times during the action — further emphasized the various configurations of love and loyalty that existed between the inhabitants of the hutong.
The usage of the space appeared deceptively simple, but it obviously took a lot of thought to manipulate the space available onstage in such a way as to capture so many little nuances from Lao She’s story. It was an event I very much enjoyed watching, thanks especially to the masterful execution of technique. I hope the show enjoys even further success as it continues its tour.
** Ida Pruitt, Lao She’s favorite translator, translated the title of 四世同堂 into The Yellow Storm for her 1952 version of the book. Others have sometimes called it Four Generations Under One Roof.