Thunderstorm was one of the first plays I ever saw live on stage. For me as a schoolgirl, Cao Yu’s sprawling family drama offered a transformative experience, in which a complex plot weaves through the life of eight main characters from two families in 1920s China. The piece, a triumph for the playwright when it premiered more than 80 years ago, is now considered a magnum opus of modern Chinese literature. Often praised as the Hamlet of Chinese theatre, the play is compared to Shakespeare’s classic both in its scale and incestuous relations. The story revolves around the family of Zhou Puyuan, the corrupt patriarch of a westernized family, and the sons he sires with his housemaid’s daughter and two wives. Those children become enmeshed in a tangle of doomed relationships that overcomes them, and the overwhelming trauma of the truth leads to the death of all three children, leaving Zhou Puyuan in a state of ceaseless regret. The play is a tragedy of love, fate and despicable rich men. Although Thunderstorm is a tale unique to the Chinese culture and is set in a specific time period, the play has become a timeless relic that reveals the ugliness of entitlement and how the actions of the privileged can have tragic effects on the less fortunate.
Thunderstorm 2.0 keeps the archetypes in Cao Yu’s play, but turns the original story, which was practically a saga spanning 30 years, into just a few snapshots, combining two generations of the trials and tribulations of the Zhou family into an almost abstract sketch.
If you remember The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s The Orpheus Variations from the 2015 Under the Radar festival, Thunderstorm 2.0 operates with a similar style and aesthetic. The stage is set up to resemble a film set, split into various rooms in which multiple characters play out scenes from the play. A crew films the scenes from different angles, and the live footage is projected onto a screen in front of the set, which also provides subtitles of the dialogue.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the production is the use of Ping Tan as a narrative form. A theatrical and storytelling performance form that is native to Suzhou (a city in China just west of Shanghai), Ping Tan usually features two narrators who play out every single character in a story, accompanying themselves with a Sanxian (a three-stringed Chinese lute), and a Pipa (a pear shaped four-stringed lute). It is also performed in the Suzhou dialect and uses poetic lyrics to enhance the flow of the story. American audiences needn’t worry about not understanding the words, since even native speakers of Chinese, including myself, need the assistance of the subtitles to understand the dialects. Here, musicians and performers Jiang Xiaobo and Xie Yan open up the show with a traditional melody as footage of the actors begins to roll on the screen above them.
The patriarch of the Zhou family in Thunderstorm, Zhou Puyuan, becomes in this version more of a nameless representation of what the character stands for. He’s still the libertine, taking advantage of the women within his easy reach. One of his conquests, a housemaid, is also an amalgam of two characters in Thunderstorm, who are both victims of male oppression.
Although a departure from the plot of the original play, the production manages to preserve the essence of the relationships between its characters and raises an important question: after 80 years, why is this gender thing still the same? The narrators ask another question that’s lingering on our minds: why are we not doing something about it after leaving the theatre? The narrators, whose engaging presences are the absolute highlights of the show, also serve as liaisons between the audiences (most of whom might not be familiar with the play), and the creators who are taking quite a liberal interpretation of the text.
The company behind the production, Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental, is an avant-garde performance group based in Beijing, China. The founder and artistic director, Wang Chong, studied with Robert Wilson, which perhaps explains the company’s experimental tendencies. The use of multimedia has been a staple of the shows the company produces.
While I appreciate the use of live footage to create layers of storytelling within a theatrical production, I also find it distracting. Technology should aid in furthering the clarity of a play, rather than adding unnecessary complication. Knowing the play very well myself, I was able to put together the puzzle pieces distilled from Thunderstorm in the making of a 2.0 version, with a focus on the play’s gender dynamics rather than its cultural and historical context. However, I wonder whether it’s a stretch to understand the story without at least being briefed about Thunderstorm’s synopsis beforehand.