Mainland avant-garde playwright Meng Jinghui goes mainstream

He packs out theatres all over China, but has the one-time darling of mainland avant-garde drama gone mainstream? Fiona Tam finds out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:16am

Potbellied and sloppily dressed, Liu Xiaoye gives little indication that he's one of the mainland's most popular stage actors, maintaining the same image outside the theatre as his most famous role in it.

Liu, 36, has acted and taught drama for more than a decade. However, it wasn't until he took up one of the two titular roles in Two Dogs' Opinions on Life, a dark comedy by avant-garde playwright Meng Jinghui, that he began to gain recognition.

Two Dogs has been performed across the country more than 1,200 times since it premiered in 2007, setting a record for mainland experimental theatre. This feat is surpassed only by Rhinoceros in Love, another play directed by Meng, that has been staged 1,500 times since 1999.

With changes in society, what was considered to be avant-garde 20 years ago is now deemed to be popular
louis yu, west kowloon cultural district authority 

"We have three groups of actors and crew that can stage Two Dogs in different provinces at the same time," Liu says, following a recent run in Shenzhen.

Liu's ensemble has presented the play about 200 times annually on a tour that has taken them to 27 provinces so far; the only places they have not performed in are the island province of Hainan, and the remote regions of Gansu, Ningxia and Tibet.

Han Pengyi, who has played the elder of the two canines for the past six years, attributes the drama's enduring appeal to the way it has been able to reflect the frustrations and suffering of the lower classes.

The black comedy, which depicts the hardship and injustices that two country dogs encounter as they travel to the big city to pursue their dreams, has resonated with thousands of so-called beipiao or Beijing drifters. Young graduates who leave their hometowns in search of a better future in the major cities, beipiao struggle to get ahead and most languish at the bottom of social pile.

But it's not just Beijing drifters who can relate, Han says. "Everyone has hard times in their lives and are thus drawn into the play."

Meng, who studied literature at Beijing Normal University and earned a master's from the Central Academy of Drama, established his position as one of China's most successful avant-garde theatre directors partly by deconstructing classic works and reinterpreting absurdist theatre of the West, but most of all through staging his own experimental works.

He first established his niche in mainland drama after joining the Central Experimental Theatre Troupe (now the National Theatre Company of China) in 1992. From that avant-garde incubator, Meng went on to create and direct plays such as Rhinoceros in Love. Comrade Ah Q and Bootleg Faust.

By 2008, he was operating his own experimental stage. Located in central Dongcheng district in Beijing, the Honeycomb (Fengchao) Theatre has played to full houses for years - a feat that would be the envy of impresarios anywhere - and on a bill comprised entirely of Meng's works.

With such box office success, however, Meng has come under fire in recent years for increasingly commercialised productions. Critics argue that his plays have less experimental elements nowadays and excessive nonsensical humour to try to please audiences.

Beijing-based drama critic Lin Kehuan, a former director of China Youth Art Theatre, reckons almost all of Meng's dramas created after 2000 are carefully designed to meet the market's demand.

"China's avant-garde dramas started to prosper after the Cultural Revolution, and Meng directed and created many great pieces in the 1990s ... including I Love XXX, which is composed with 600 sentences of 'I love …' without any storyline," Lin says.

"However, Meng's bestselling plays of the past decade, including Rhinoceros in Love, Two Dogs and the Murder of Hanging Garden, are all commercial rather than avant-garde pieces.

"The drama Two Dogs criticises society a lot but the original purpose of the writers is to put some 100 jokes into the two-hour show and make it a funny and enjoyable experience."

Lin thinks it unlikely that Meng would abandon his commercially successful dramas and return to avant-garde works. "Audiences can still find some experimental elements but there's no breakthrough any more," he says.

After watching a performance of Two Dogs, Beijing-based NGO worker Jane Li says she expected more from the production.

"The drama skims the surface of China's social reality by poking fun at cases found in newspapers or on the internet. There are many jokes that make the two-hour show enjoyable but, for me, it's more like cross-talk or errenzhuan (a song-and-dance duet popular in northeast China) rather than a drama," she says.

"It lacks the kind of power that hits the bottom of my heart," Li says, citing Meng's earlier productions as more powerful than his current work.

Meng disagrees with the criticism. " Two Dogs isn't a light comedy … its connotation is tragic, although we present it in a funny way," he says.

"The value of Two Dogs is its comprehension towards life rather than simply entertaining the audiences. I'm an artist and I prefer to leave comments open to the public."

So Kwok-wan, an associate programme director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, says Meng is a rare example of someone who has been able to maintain avant-garde elements in his dramas while achieving box office success.

"Commercial success and artistry aren't in conflict," So says. "In China, Meng is still praised for his non-mainstream and untraditional aesthetics."

Indeed, Meng has tried to bring experimental elements back to his work.

A new play Pursuing Pleasure - inspired by Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness - eschews a conventional narrative and instead incorporates more than 26 absurd fragments according to the English alphabet. What's more, he cast three young people with virtually no drama training in the key roles.

Ding Yiteng, one of the three actors, says they try to express the younger generation's understanding of life, sex and love through those fragments.

"The play isn't market-oriented and we don't expect everyone can understand it," Ding says.

Last year, Meng also experimented with new formats by adapting Stefan Zweig's novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman into a monodrama -something that might try the patience of theatre-goers anywhere.

But the brand effect of his name and a major expansion of theatre audiences on the mainland meant his new plays have done well at the box office, regardless of reviews.

The Unknown Woman monodrama has been staged more than 100 times nationwide, while Pursuing Pleasure was performed 50 times.

Asked to identify the country's most promising avant-garde theatre directors, Meng names Wang Chong, 32, and 42 year-old Li Jianjun.

"The two have a clear-cut stand [in drama], although some may criticise them as being eager for quick success. I think the most important characteristic for them is fearlessness," he says.

Wang is known for his play Thunderstorm 2.0, which radically reworks the original script by renowned Chinese playwright Cao Yu to create a multimedia drama, with a film crew shooting the action as it unfolds on stage. Audiences have a busy time, switching their attention between what happens on screen and on the stage, reflecting how people in modern society are overwhelmed by huge volume of fragmented information.

Li is similarly experimental. For A Beautiful Day, a new play that he staged last year, Li invited 19 working-class people on stage and had them talk simultaneously about their lives while the audience chose which person's story they wanted to listen to by tuning their issued radio sets.

So, of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, says Wang stood out in China's stage circles because of his thoughtful approach that breaks from tradition.

For example, he says, "Chinese theatre directors used to put actors and scripts at a paramount position, but Wang breaks that convention. This connects him with the Western avant-garde scene, making his work accessible for foreign audiences."

New generation stage directors such as Li show a direct concern about grassroots communities and society, although censorship and self-censorship may have restricted their creation, So says.

Even so, Louis Yu Kwok-lit, executive director of performing arts at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, reckons avant-garde theatre on the mainland is at a low ebb.

Although some theatre directors still produce experimental work, it is difficult for them to exert the kind of influence their predecessors had two decades ago.

"I think the development of avant-garde drama in China over the past 20 years is similar to that of its fine art scene. With changes in society, what was considered to be avant-garde 20 years ago is now deemed to be popular. Meng is a very good example," Yu says.

"With the rise of the middle-class in most cities in China, there is a great expansion of the market for drama. Commercialisation is happening in all art forms, including theatre; this is also a result of government policy [to run cultural activity as an industry]."