The 52nd HK Arts Festival

Three Performances at The Peony Pavilion (Complete Version): After Du Liniang's Return to Life

Text / Vivian Yuen

"Love elicits dreams, and dreams elicit drama," sums up the concept behind The Peony Pavillion, written by Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu. The play paints a perfect picture of romantic love, and of the pursuit of liberty in a delicate and romantic style. Written more than 400 years ago, its themes are still relevant today. And with kun opera being named part of China's intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2001, The Peony Pavilion has become the most-performed piece by kun opera troupes and the pinnacle of the art form. However, staging the complete version of the opera has been a dream that spans generations of kun artists. "This is our mission, so not doing it would cause us deep regret," says Zhang Jingxian, a nationally acclaimed actress from the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe (SKOT).


Restoring the Complete Text

Comprising 55 scenes, a broad spectrum of themes and an intricate mix of singing and acting, The Peony Pavilion is a huge undertaking to stage in its entirety. As such, various opera troupes have performed adaptations focusing on the love story between Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang. These condensed versions often begin with the scenes "Studying at Home" and "A Walk in the Garden", where Du's awakening starts, and end with "Returning to Life", which demonstrates that "the living may die and the dead may come back to life". At the upcoming 52nd HKAF, however, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe (SKOT)will bring the complete version to life over three performances.

At the heart of Tang's opera is a great love story, yet its yearning for springtime and dreams of better days symbolises our aspirations for autonomy. Through the love story, the playwright depicts the beauty of life; yet romantic love is far from the only theme. Luo Chenxue, the actress who plays Du, says:  "Love is beautiful, but on reading the original work repeatedly, one realises romantic love is merely a part of life. Deeper meanings lie in what Du encounters, how she resolves them and what she pursues—how she dedicates her life to her dreams."

Over the years, multiple generations of artists from the SKOT have taken on different versions of the play. After countless online rehearsals during the pandemic and more than 40 days of rehearsals at a boot camp in Tongxiang City, The Peony Pavilion (Complete Version), its script being trimmed and edited by the late playwright Wang Renjie, and directed by Guo Xiaonan, was finally debuted in 2022. It showcases the epic scale of the original text while revealing what life was like in the Ming dynasty. It shines a spotlight on the context that nourishes the romance between Du and Liu—a society marked by continuous warfare and dominated by Neo-Confucianism that advocated cosmic principles and dismissed personal desires. Against this background, the purity of the love between Du and Liu stands out as precious and powerful.

Finding a contemporary Du Liniang

Director Guo based the current production on the 35-scene version staged by the SKOT in 1999 and made further alterations. The stage design utilises four scene settings on a revolving stage, making entrances and exits far different from traditional staging. Right from the beginning, the director asked the two young artists, Luo Chenxue and Hu Weilu, to innovate during rehearsals without seeking advice from their mentors. Yue Meiti, one of several artistic directors working with the young artists, says: "It's been a great challenge for the two of them. I seldom praised Weilu, but I've been wanting to encourage her in this production." Mentor Zhang Jingxian adds: "She could learn from but not imitate the performances of their predecessors. Luo Chenxue must come up with an interpretation of Du Liniang that is her own."
Facing such high expectations and with the third part of the play rarely performed, the two artists have been facing continuous challenges. In the first third of the play, the pair share a dreamlike, romantic love; in the middle, they spend time together, see Du return to life and experience a rapid change of fate during the war; while the final third, in which the couple have to deal with social etiquette, presents a challenge not only to the characters in the mortal world, but also to the way the two artists sustain their roles. Of the third part of the play, Zhang says: "They have to face society with their experiences and gain approval for their relationship, so there will be changes in their voices, and the expressions in their eyes and postures. Their energy and tenacity must correspond too. The inner strength and control demanded by this performance is drastically different."

"The characters need us, and we need the characters," Hu says of the growth and changes that she and Luo had experienced. And Yue notes: "Every generation of artists is faced with a different generation of audiences and plays." While The Peony Pavilion in its entirety has great significance to kun opera as a genre, what does it offer the contemporary audience? Luo spells it out clearly:  "I greatly admire Du Liniang's pursuit of liberty. Not many women, even these days, have the same courage. We all have dreams, but how we face reality is a common challenge for people of any era."

Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe—The Peony Pavilion (Complete Version)

Date: 2-3 Mar, 2024

Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/Shanghai_Kunqu_Opera_Troupe?