Saturday, July 11, 2009

灯官油流鬼 L’Exécution Du Juge Infernal. Beijing Opera, Shadow Theatre and a French Theatre Director.

During the festival “Croissements” that the French government organizes each year in China there was a curious stage production, 灯官油流鬼 or "L'exécution du juge infernal" (1).

I thought this production was a curiosity because of the circumstances in which it was made and the elements involved in it: 灯官油流鬼 was directed by a French director, Sarah Oppenheim, a student specializing in traditional Chinese theater, who decided to do something the Chinese had never done before, staging an adaptation of a classical Chinese opera performed by Beijing opera actors and shadow theater puppets, two types of theater that have influenced each other during centuries but never mixed, at least till now.

Photographs (slideshow) "L'exécution du juge infernal 灯官油流鬼"

To accomplish this “exploration” Sarah was capable enough to join a great Beijing shadow theater company, "Han Feizi" (2), and a group of actors from the Youth Beijing Opera Trouppe, and then to work together staging an adaptation of the classic opera “铡判官” or “Jinchan case”, an opera called "exorcist," a term for operas with subjects like death, ghosts, and travels to the underworld.

Chinese commentators and Sarah Oppenheim herself, before the premiere, spoke of a Westernization within the traditional Chinese theater: even when using all the physical and artistic elements of Chinese theater, the structure of the assembly was in a "Western style”, according to the Oppenheim vision, of course. The director then adapted the text of the classical Chinese opera and put it on stage alternating shadow theater and Beijing Opera, in an spectacle which lasted just over an hour and a half, trying to shorten the usual duration of any Chinese opera (which is between 3 and 5 hours), keeping in mind the attention span of a contemporary viewer, and directed all actions of the story based on that (3).

Some years ago I had seen “Jinchan case”, the classical version, performed by the National Beijing Opera Trouppe (4), so when I was seeing Oppenheim’s version I could recall some of those scenes and the famous arias I had seen and listened to before. I remember that production as a high quality one, in terms of physical work at least, and with particularly spectacular acrobatic moments. I can not say that this "exploratory" performance appealed to me more than the classical one, but I found it to be easier to assimilate, and much less ambitious in terms of theatrical production. What I was absolutely impressed with, though, was the work of "Han Feizi" and their expertise in handing their puppets at a very high level, with moments of enormous beauty and ability. The Beijing Opera actors, on the other hand, young and without much experience, were less fortunate that their puppeteer colleagues; I was surprised, while I was seeing their performance, how the technical perfection by the actors I saw years ago at Chang'an Theatre (in the performance of the classical opera) was missing, and I thought about how important that is for any Beijing opera production, the sophistication and technical perfection of the physical movement, recitation and singing.

The video material will always be the best approach to the experience I had as a spectator seeing 灯官油流鬼:

Video (playlist with 12 videos) "L'exécution du Juge infernal"

Years of seeing Chinese theater and also years to elucidate its possible assimilation outside China, the use of its movements or the use of its exercises (I'm not the first one to say it, of course), never led me to think about the idea of a “westernization of its structure” and, as a western artist, to offer it to the Chinese public! It simply sounds to me a risky audacity in a lost war. But this time I was a witness of it and, surprisingly, it came from a French director. Let me explain, the "audacity" I’m talking about is trying to introduce any change in the Chinese world of tradition, extreme in itself, in the world of the “it must be”. Chinese journalists and critics spoke before the premier, many with some respect and some talking about “a surprising new idea”, some even called it "subversive" in a gentle and ironic way, but after the performance they stopped talking. Sarah got a group of traditional artists to join her in this exploration, but did not get a worthy reply from the Chinese public and from the Chinese theater cultural elite; the cultural power in this country is really part of a theological state, a “de facto” power, and the people who should be there to see it and criticize it and therefore give it a place in Chinese history were not there, silence was the worst of the responses.

I love the idea of such innovative productions, western students traveling throughout china, acquiring knowledge, learning from traditional masters, seeking to explore and practice what they learn (5), and I prefer to stay with it, that's where I think the greatest value of Oppenheim's adventure lies. In the end, tell me who (as strange and unsuccessful as it may seem), who or how many understand at high level two of the most important and specialized traditional forms of Chinese theatre, adapt them and mix them in searching for a new style?

(1) The name of the show in French, not the translation of the name in Chinese.
(2) There are at least two famous shadows theatre trouppes in Beijing, Longzaitian (which I met last year) and Han Feizi. You can see my post dedicated to my visit to Longzaitian Theatre (now demolished or undergoing renovation) in:
You can read an interview on the website of The Beijinger, an entertainment magazine in Beijing, where Sarah Oppenheim talks about the whys of her production:
(4) Here's a link to my post about the performance of this classical opera; it's some video showing scenes that just seemed interesting to me, I have no critical comments:
(5) Sarah, a sinologist and a specialist in Chinese theater, travelled during a whole year throughout China in search of experiences, looking for ghosts operas and shadow theater, and learned different ways to work the traditional puppet theater. You can find a beautiful description of the cultural life of Sarah in a blog of her journey through China:
"Sarah Oppenheim, my travel partner, is a petite French woman with a fierce character. Working on her masters in Chinese theatre, she is also learning the art of puppet play in Beijing. Rehearsing every day with her troupe members in a run-down shack huddled around a coal oven, she is learning how to “walk” her puppets. To learn the art of Dongbei puppets (from Northeastern China), her master insists that she needs to “walk” her puppet for at least one year to gain the dexterity of a professional. There are many walks he claims: a calm and serene character must have a slow stride, like deep breathing, up and down, slow and steady. A clown however, must be in constant movement, his head bobbing up and down, tripping occasionally – ready to make the crowd laugh. Sarah’s master insists that she can be initiated to other puppet movements, only after learning all the walks. From her almost four months of daily practice, Sarah has calloused hands and a protruding new thumb muscle. She is fed up with “walking”. Mr. Wei laughs at Sarah when she tells him what she is learning, and says that in Beijing people are too caught up on details He tells us that it only takes a month to learn the basic puppet techniques of the Huaxian shadow play and only about one year with the troupe to learn multiple dramas and most of the techniques. In past decades this apprenticeship took longer as most people were analphabet, and had to memorize the words and music for each play, which could take around three years. Sarah is excited to learn about today’s accelerated learning and Mr. Wei invites her to study with the troupe this spring. One month of study to become an ambulant puppet player. Sounds enchanting."

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