Romeo and Juliet. Tristan and Isolde. Orpheus and Eurydice. These tragic love stories are legendary in western culture.
National Theatre of China has followed suit with a contemporary tale of ill-fated lovers – Ma Lu and Ming Ming. Ma Lu (Nianhua Zhang) and Ming Ming (Xi Qi) are not star-crossed lovers as such, but rather are caught in a web of unrequited love. At first intriguing, this tale gradually descends into the dungeons of despair.
Romeo and Juliet’s love burned brightly despite the tragic outcome to their love. Playwright Liao Yimei’s Rhinoceros in Love similarly portrays the youth, vitality, futility and desperation so prominent in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, there is no such brightly burning flame of love to offer relief, or triumph of the human spirit. Rather this is a forlorn account of unreciprocated love.
Perhaps it is unfair to make comparisons to other love stories such as Romeo and Juliet, but it is also irresistible because of the intensity and futility of the young love.
Zhang is brilliant as the geeky and genuine zoo-keeper Ma Lu who falls desperately in love with neighbour Ming Ming. Zhang portrays the forceful nature of Ma Lu’s feelings and adeptly walks the fine line between compelling love and obsession before teetering over the edge.
Xi Qi plays a gamine, coquettish and vulnerable Ming Ming who is entranced not by Ma Lu but by her domineering and insensitive lover.
The doomed dance of unreturned love between Zhang’s Ma Lu and Qi’s Ming Ming unravels throughout the play, although Ming Ming’s lover is never on stage.
Director Meng Jinghui has produced a striking and memorable production of this disturbing story. The music is profoundly moving, the set strikingly angular and the lighting adding to the ambience. The overall effect provides moments of brilliant haunting imagery.
The illusionary nature of love is powerfully portrayed, as is the bigger picture of illusion versus reality.
Where this play falters is in its repetitive nature and its length. It is a dark tale that unravels for two hours without a break. Neither of the main characters is able to reach within and discover a greater love, a love that overcomes lust or obsession. Both succumb in their own way to fixated infatuation for another, rather than discovering a sense of self-worth or indeed a happy ending in a loved one’s arms. Despite its flaws this is a dark, edgy production that burns in the memory long after the final curtain.
Adelaide Festival Centre, Brisbane Festival 2011 and Melbourne Festival present
Rhinoceros in Love
National Theatre of China
Director Meng Jinghui
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre
Dates: 15 – 17 September, 2011
Tickets: $45 – $25
Bookings: 131 246
Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles