Secret Loss in ‘Peach Blossom Land’

28 Mar

Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land is one of those plays that use comedy to comment on the tragic. Influential Taiwan based playwright Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan), feted as “Asia’s Top Theater Director” (Asiaweek), masterfully amalgamates two plays with parallel storylines to create a multilayered, rich, and thought-provoking play about loss.

The play uses an inventive stratagem of two theatre groups mistakenly booking the same theater for rehearsal to mix two plays, ‘Secret Love’, a serious modern love story dealing with young lovers separated when the Communists take over China in 1949, and ‘Peach Blossom Land’, a fifth-century fable by the Chinese poet Tap Yuanming about a Utopia where all history is forgotten.

“The play begins with “Secret Love” as two young lovers, Jiang Binliu and Yun Zhifan bid each other a temporary farewell in a misty moonlit park in 1948 Shanghai. Images of war still torment Jiang — his homeland in northeast China has been devastated by the Japanese invasion — but Yun tries to persuade him to forget the past, brightly telling him, “A new China is on the way!” Fast-forward four decades and Jiang Binliu is an old man lying terminally ill in a Taipei hospital room as his devoted, but unloved, Taiwanese wife looks on. He is still brooding over the past, desperate to see Yun Zhifan, from whom he was separated after fleeing the Communist takeover of China in 1949, before he dies.

The second play, “Peach Blossom Land,” is a farcical interpretation of a well-known fifth-century story about a lost fisherman who stumbles into a utopian land filled with blossoming peach trees where all people live in harmony because they have no historical memory. In this version, however, the fisherman (played by Yu Entai) is a hapless, cuckolded husband, and the first people he meets in the mythical Peach Blossom Land look exactly like his wife (played by Xie Na) and her lover (performed by He Ling and Tian Yu on alternating nights). He gradually succumbs to their absurd utopian lifestyle — dressing in white, catching injured butterflies “to return to their mothers” and taking care to step lightly so as not to hurt the grass — but eventually leaves in the hope of persuading his estranged wife to return with him.

Forced to share the same stage, the directors and casts of “Secret Love” and “Peach Blossom Land” argue over who needs the rehearsal space more, critique each other’s performances, remove each other’s props, and ultimately divide the stage in half and perform at the same time. Through these shared scenes — the two plays slowly, almost magically, merge as their performers complete each other’s lines and common themes emerge. But, by play’s end when Jiang Binliu finally finds Yun Zhifan, who has been living in Taipei all along, the laughter gives way to sobs and the audience is left to contemplate the burdens of memory, history, longing and love — and the power of theater itself.” ()

The work showcases a keen understanding of both the history and the nature of the medium. Equally impressive is Lai’s ability to lay bare the medium in a manner that is vastly appealing and accessible. Aside from the wonderfully deft usage of comedy to highlight the serious and the political, the expert denouement of the craft of theater within a play is extremely powerful.

The division of the stage between the two stories is sort of a directorial coup that provides such a rich ground for analysis. The plays differ in the way they are handled – one with the high emotional tenor of a soap opera, and another a farcical lampoon. It parodies both the modern preoccupation with self and the brusqueness with which they discard history and its cliched folk tales. The parallel narration also allows one to see how old folklore lives side by side with contemporary stories, negotiating and creating an understanding of identity, longing, and loss.

The play can be seen as both a comment on Taiwan and its relationship with China and the post-communist Chinese and their relationship to their own history – both have become strangers to their own history though for different reasons. Taiwan, ever more pressured by US to make impossible purchases of weapons it will perhaps never use, has perhaps an American media dominated culture that turns away from its long history. And as the Chinese post-Cultural Revolution have been increasingly shepherded into the history-less present. It is in the Peach Blossom Land – happy but longing for history.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the play was written by someone who had been in the US for some time. For being outside one’s own country allows one to look not only more objectively at his or her native country but also makes one more acutely aware of the cultural loss.

The usage of old folklore in theater reminds me of similar practice in contemporary artworks by people like Saira Wasim. But then again old stories have always found their way into contemporary reality as we still remain essentially the same psychological human beings.

In all it is a fascinating play that fully deserves the success it has seen. We hope Lai continues to –in Lai’s words- “provoke and delight” – for many more years!