The door of karma never closes. Such is the main theme of White Snake, one of China’s most famous folk tales, as retold by director Giacomo Ravicchio and brought to life by a stellar cast from Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC).
The White Snake legend predates the Ming dynasty in its oral form and has had many alternative versions developed through the Tang and Ching Dynasties. Whether you’re familiar or not with the original story, Ravicchio’s adaptation is mythical, beautiful and charged with drama.
To open the show, the narrator (Yuan Ye) sets up the theme of karma by recounting the story of a boy who saves a snake from a turtle. Audiences are immediately captivated by the skillful use of mixed media: beautiful calligraphy and sketches are projected on semi-transparent screens; singer Zhang Zhongyi introduces sub-themes through song; traditional erhu and guzheng is combined with modern instruments perfectly by composer Jérome Baur.
Suzhen (Yang Ziyi) and Greenie (Guo Tongtong) are sister snakes from Emei Mountain, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. They are magical immortals who, curious about the human race, transform themselves into women and go into the city for an adventure. What they don’t count on is Suzhen meeting and falling in love with Xu Xian (Liu Xubin), a naïve but well-intentioned pharmacist.
The original plan was to return to Emei but Suzhen is desperate to understand why she had an immediate connection with Xu Xian. Though slightly jealous, Greenie uses her powers to set up another meeting for her sister and the mortal. Here, the connection between Suzhen and Xu Xian is undeniable (it later becomes apparent that he is the boy who saved the snake – Suzhen – from the turtle) and the two decide to be together. Although unions between mortals and immortals are not allowed, Suzhen hides her secret.
The drama starts as they approach the Dragon Boat Festival. A tradition on this day is to drink xionghuang wine, which has long been known to deter evil spirits and disease – and snakes. Greenie foresees disaster and tries to take her sister away but Suzhen is so in love that she cannot bear to leave her husband, even for one day. Meanwhile, Xu Xian’s mentor Fa Hai (Ren Shan) warns that Suzhen is not what she appears to be and challenges Xu Xian to invite his wife to drink the xionghuang wine. To prove her love, Suzhen drinks the wine, but falls sick and even reveals her true form.
What follows is a fast-paced series of events involving trickery, faith, love, compassion and karma. The true nature of Fa Hai and the narrator – whose stage presence was unusual but unobtrusive, and played an important role in the end – are revealed in the remainder of this legendary tale. Culminating in a beautifully executed fight scene and a touching resolution, SDAC’s performance left me spellbound.
This complex, intertwined story of love, betrayal, compassion, and karma was portrayed through talented acting and dancing. The use of mixed media in such a traditional tale was executed perfectly and always appropriately, maintaining the mythical ambience and driving the plot, underscored by Baur’s score.
As the show had a limited run in Brisbane (Friday 31 March and Saturday 1 April), the only thing I can recommend is to follow the works of SDAC and Ravicchio, and keep an eye on QPAC’s ever-more culturally diverse program. For me, the opportunity to be part of SDAC’s first visit to Australia was wonderful.
Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre
Venue: Playhouse | QPAC, cnr Grey St & Melbourne St, South Brisbane QLD
Dates: 31 Mar – 1 Apr 2017
Tickets: $39 – $99