Rhinoceros in Love
by Liao Yimei
National Theatre of China
Auckland Arts Festival
Until March 12
Rhinoceros in Love is the most successful contemporary theatre work to come out of mainland China. It has been running in various productions since 1999, has been seen by almost a million people and is now a cult classic for young Chinese.
The tale follows Ma Lu, who has developed a strange fascination with Mini Ming, who he has been attracted to (by his sensitive nose) because she smells of photocopier, and must therefore be an office worker.
He tries everything to woo Ming Ming but she does not reciprocate. In the end he captures her, blindfolds her and recounts his love for her. His rambling outpourings are those of an obsessive stalker impelled by the superficiality of today’s consumer society and social networking age.
The play owes much to the experimental European theatre of the 1970s, the theatre of the absurd and writers such as Pinter. There are also hints of classical Chinese literature as well as contemporary mainland rap and poetry.
It is play about thwarted and obsessive love, exploring the contemporary problems many face with developing relationships where virtual reality and dreams appear in conflict with everyday reality.
New cultural landscape
This is the new Chinese cultural landscape where game shows and classes in how to attract the opposite sex are seen as a way to jump-start relationships.
The overall tone is both metaphysical and realistic, and is constructed in a way that reality, illusion and dream are often hinted at side by side and difficult to differentiate.
It is heavy with symbolism and slang, much of which will escape a European audience, with references to works of Chinese literature such as the Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as traditional Chinese opera and the opera of the Cultural Revolution.
The chorus of Ma Lu’s associates keeps up witty commentary on their friend and social conventions, borrowing from contemporary sources and others as obscure as Nostradamus.
The play's mixture of poetic dialogue, jokes, singing and music plus some elaborate staging effects – makes for an entertaining work featuring complex and psychological undertones with subtle and not-so-subtle references to contemporary social controls in China.
Many of the scenes have a Beckett-like quality which helps create a surreal feeling.
The offstage rhinoceros Talu, with whom Ma Lu has a much more “normal" relationship, is also blighted in love as a mate is continually withheld by bureaucratic interference.
It is rewarding to experience what Chinese audiences get to see in terms of contemporary theatre.