People’s Art Theatre director Li Liuyi is known for turning traditional theatre on its head.

Chinese dramatist’s Hong Kong show turns Greek tragedy into comedy

Production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound plays on the absurdity of portraying deities in human form

Xu Donghuan

In 1986, while studying at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Li Liuyi travelled back to his hometown in Sichuan during a break to direct,his first play, The Young Guo Moruo. It was a sensation.

Not only was his choice of subject unconventional – Guo was an important but controversial cultural figure in 20th century China who penned a number of influential poems before recanting his literary career by destroying his works on the eve of the Cultural Revolution – so was his approach to theatre.

A year later, at the age of 26, Li returned to Sichuan again and adapted German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 work The Good Person of Szechwan into a Sichuan opera. A work for his graduation, the production was another success and drew nationwide attention.

“By that time, everybody agrees I’m not a conventional card-player as they call it, because I do not like to follow the traditions in theatre practice,” recalls the 55-year-old stage director, sipping iced cola at an upstart coffee shop in Beijing.

Li is known for turning traditional theatre on its head. His Heroine trilogy (2003), for instance, shocked audiences (especially in Beijing) by boldly abandoning the rules and aesthetics of Peking opera. His method is intended both to challenge contemporary theatre-goers and keep old stage works relevant. It’s an approach that has drawn both praise and criticism for Li, is now a director of the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing.

A scene from Antigone by Li Liuyi Theatre Studio (China).

In November he will stage his adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound as part of Hong Kong’s New Vision Arts Festival. The play is the last of his Greek drama trilogy, Li having earlier staged Sophocles’ tragedies Antigone and Oedipus the King. With this series, Li again wants to build a bridge between ancient past and present.

“Theatrical performance has evolved a lot in modern times and we have almost lost sight of the origin of theatre,” Li says. “It’s now time to look back and renew our interest in these classics and use them as a mirror for us today. Many of the issues discussed in these plays are still relevant today. Civil disobedience, for instance, which runs through Antigone, is still a very contemporary issue.”

Yao Lu (left) and Jiang Shan perform in the stage drama Oedipus the King directed by Li Liuyi.

Although Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound – a tragedy based on the myth of Prometheus, who defies Zeus by stealing fire and giving it to mankind – pre-dates Sophocles’ Theban plays, Li thinks the powerful work is a perfect way to close the trilogy.

“Both Antigone and Oedipus the King examine the conflict between the individual and the state,” Li says. “In Prometheus Bound, however, the protagonist is a deity whose theft of fire has long been considered a heroic act. In the play, I want to ask the question: is the defiant Prometheus a real hero? Has he committed any sins?”

His adaptations of Antigone and Oedipus the King are a far cry from traditional productions of the works. In Prometheus Bound, Li says he will try something more radical.

“The three Greek plays are adapted in a progressive departure from the conventions,” he says. “For Prometheus Bound, I’ll turn the famous Greek tragedy into a surreal comedy.”

Li won’t modify the play or use flashy multimedia on stage, as some of his contemporaries do. The transformation – from tragedy to comedy – is achieved by the actors interpreting Aeschylus’ lines differently. “The same script can bring out [meanings that are] totally altered,” he says.

The story of Prometheus Bound, in Li’s reading, contains a strong sense of the absurd, especially when we try to personify the deities. Li says: “In ancient Greek drama, the deities are personifications of human beings. So when you see Prometheus as having human flesh and emotions, the absurdity is evident.”

Actor Yao Lu (centre) performs in Oedipus the King.

Lin Xiyue, 46, who has worked with Li and played Creon in Li’s Antigone, will take on the title role. From a family with a strong theatre background – his father is Lin Zhaohua, a well-respected theatre director for his pioneering experimental work – Lin has appeared both on stage and in TV dramas. The actor also has a unique sense of humour, which Li is confident will help highlight the comic elements of Prometheus Bound.

Another twist the director will bring to the work is his treatment of the chorus, a distinctive feature of classical Greek tragedies.

When adapting Antigone and Oedipus the King, Li borrowed a vocal accompaniment technique from Sichuan opera, “the helping chorus” (bang qiang), as well as a style of reading classic Chinese poetry known as “recite in a singing fashion” (yin).

Traditional Chinese opera has been Li’s source of inspiration. From a very young age, he was immersed in the genre. His father was a performer with the Sichuan Provincial Opera Troupe.

After five years of studying mostly Western theatre at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Li’s keen interest in traditional opera led him to become a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Arts – a move many of his drama classmates found strange.

He spent eight years there doing research alongside erudite scholars, and in the meantime directing productions for regional traditional opera troupes. His strong background in traditional opera has earned him a reputation as the most savvy about the genre among China’s theatre directors.

Li’s career as a theatrical director suffered a setback in 2000 when he staged Cao Yu’s 1937 work The Wilderness. Li’s bold, avant-garde take on this famous play by Cao, a playwright who is widely respected, touched people’s nerves. A nationwide attack on Li ensued. The People’s Art Theatre struck Li’s name off its list of directors.

It was not until 2006 that he was back in the director’s seat. This time, he was asked to restage Peking Man, Cao’s magnum opus, written in 1940. Known for being difficult to produce, the play has a history of low audience enthusiasm when staged. In a style faithful to the original work and creative in movements on the stage, stage setting and music, Li’s restaged Peking Man was a huge success and hailed as a milestone in the history of the People’s Art Theatre.

Director Li Liuyi will present his adaptation of Prometheus Bound at the upcoming New Vision Arts Festival.

Li says there is another (non-artistic) dimension to his trilogy of Greek tragedies, which is part of a larger project that he called “Made in China”. Unlike the shoddy, cheap, copycat “Made in China” products flooding the lower end of the consumer market all over the world, the director says his works are original, innovative and deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture.

“For years, I have had this strong ambition to change people’s low opinions of ‘Made in China’ products with works that are creative and originated in the Chinese culture,” he says.

Li directs, on average, four plays a year. Reviews of his works are always mixed. But he does not seem to care. “I know I have always been an unusual card-player,” he says.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: play the wild card