Love has been likened to many things in its day – a flame, a flower, an arrow to the heart – but not often to a rhinoceros. Liao Yimei’s Rhinoceros in Love though is not about any common garden-variety passion, it is about the kind of love that sets its sights and won’t be denied or turned aside, even if it has to trample everything in its way.
It tells the story of Ma Lu (Zhang Nianhua), a keeper in a decrepit rhinoceros house, who sees parallels between the life of his charge – an ageing black rhino the zoo has no intention to breed – and his own lonely existence. When he falls for his neighbour Mingming (Qi Xi) though, he becomes infused with raging passion. Mingming’s love is just as forceful, but sadly not for Ma Lu, for some other guy who treats her badly and who is not around enough to even appear once on stage. Herein lies the conflict that keeps Rhinoceros in Love charged with drama for nearly two hours, without once breaking stride.
The play is a modern classic in China, credited with catalysing a renaissance in contemporary Chinese theatre after its first performance in 1999. Director Meng Jinghui has been one of the most influential figures in Chinese drama over the last decade, both through original works like Rhinoceros in Love – written by Liao around the time she and Meng got married – and through exposing Chinese audiences to the works of writers like Beckett, Fo and Ionesco.
You don’t have to look beyond the title to see shades of Ionesco in this show and elements of the performance have a distinctly Fo-esque style about them too. Group scenes of inspired lampoonery – such as a class of young students attending a course in love in which a professor instructs them in the theory and practice of picking up, breaking up and expressing your feelings – contrast with deep personal drama in private moments.
The script, spoken in Mandarin and elegantly rendered into English subtitles by SBS, evokes the feeling of being in love achingly well, at the same time as the story dissects the very notion of romantic love. With tawdry romantic arrangements happening all around, Ma Lu and Mingming are the only characters who seem to feel the “true” love of romantic ideals. Yet their love is shown to be irrational, destructive and almost nothing to do with a genuine connection with the beloved, more a kind of unhealthy private pursuit.
With its combination of social satire and forceful drama, it is easy to see why Rhinoceros in Love has made such a big impact. It has been replayed many times over in China, where it is a particular favourite with student theatre groups apparently, but this latest re-staging by Meng Jinghui is the first to make it to Australia. It is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre, with imagery that has an instantly iconic quality and performances that leave a lasting emotional resonance.
Theatre of China
Rhinoceros in Love
by Liao Yimei
Director Meng Jinghui
Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse | 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: 6 – 9 Oct, 2011
Tickets: $75.00 – $25.00
Bookings: the Arts Centre 1300 182 183 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038
Part of the 2011 Melbourne Festival