THE golden period of 1920s and 30s, elegant Suzhou pingtan music (storytelling and ballad singing), Shanghainese dialect and old English songs — all of these classic old Shanghai elements will be fused into Eileen Chang’s work “Eighteen Springs” in a multimedia work.
Hong Kong scriptwriter and director Mathias Woo will cooperate with the Shanghai Drama Arts Center to present this classic love story at Shanghai Culture Square next month.
The Shanghai-born Chang (1920-95) is regarded as one of the most influential modern writers in China. Her works have been repeatedly adapted to films, TV series and stage dramas, such as “Eighteen Springs,” “Love in a Fallen City,” “Lust, Caution” and “The Red Rose and the White Rose.”
Performers and audiences sometimes have different expectations of how this well-known charming old Shanghai lady, her works and her own legendary stories, should be represented on stage, says Woo.
Set in 1920s-30s Shanghai, “Eighteen Springs” tells tragic love stories among seven young people. Talented Shanghai actors — Zhang Qi, Shen Lei, Xu Manman, Xie Chengying, He Yanqi, Jia Jinghui and He Bin — will perform. Zhang, who will play Zhu Hongcai, and Xie, playing the role of Gu Manlu, will speak Shanghainese throughout the show.
Chang was born in Shanghai and then studied and lived in Hong Kong. “This background makes our collaboration even more amazing,” says the Hong Kong director.
Woo directed his first Chang work about 10 years ago, also “Eighteen Springs,” when he collaborated with famed theater director Edward Lim, Taiwanese actress and singer Rene Liu, and mainland actor Liao Fan, winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actor at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
In this new version of “Eighteen Springs,” Woo has invited Suzhou pingtan performer Jin Liqun and Yu Qun to compose music for the show and perform in the drama. Jin, 70, is now the oldest pingtan player in China who still performs on stage.
Pingtan, storytelling to the music, is a very traditional Chinese music form from Suzhou, in neighboring Jiangsu Province, telling the stories by playing sanxian (three-stringed fretless plucked instrument) and pipa (Chinese lute).
“Chang’s favorite music is pingtan and she often described this music style in her works,” says Woo.
Woo is also trying to add fresh elements to the show, but the aim is to present a real Chang and her “Eighteen Springs.”
Contrasting with pingtan will be the role of a singer played by famed Taiwan drama actress and singer Jin Yanling. She will sing many classic old English songs as well as two Chinese songs composed specifically for the show.
“What was popular in 1930s Shanghai were English songs and jazz music. That’s the reason I add these elements,” says the director.
Dong Xiongfei, a 33-year-old Shanghai native, plans to watch the play. Dong likes many films adapted from Chang’s classic works such as the film “Lust, Caution” directed by Ang Lee and the TV series “Eighteen Springs,” starring Leon Lai. Dong is very interested in old Shanghai history and culture.
“This will be my first time to watch a drama adapted from Chang’s work,” Dong says. “I really want to know how an old Shanghai story will be presented on the stage.”
Another reason Dong will watch it is because of Woo and the troupe, Zuni Icosahedron. Woo’s previous musical, “Remembrance of Karaoke Past,” staged in Shanghai in 2011, left a deep impression on Dong.
“Everybody has his own understanding and feeling of Chang’s works, and I expect to hear some new ‘voices’ from the upcoming show,” he says.
“I really appreciate the creative part of the upcoming show and anticipate the performance of our local actors,” says Zhou Xiaoqian, senior director from the Shanghai Drama Arts Center.
Zhou was assistant director of “The Golden Cangue,” another of Chang’s famous works, presented by the local arts center almost 10 years ago. Zhou also played a role in the show.
This play was recently put on stage in Hong Kong again, played by veteran drama actress Perry Chiu.
“Actually, theater works adapted from Chang’s works are always well received here,” Zhou says. “That’s why I said that Chang had her magic attractions to audiences.”
Chang’s works are mostly about tragedies, exploring deep insights into love and life. Talking about why her works are frequently adapted into dramas, films and TV series, Woo says the deep and accurate descriptions of human beings and her insights into love, relationships and conflicts between people make Chang’s work vivid, even though the stories are generally simple.
“The complicated situations in life can be found in the drama,” Woo says.
“Audiences will look back to their own lives after watching Chang’s story, though it might not be that dramatic,” says Xie, the actress.
Xie, who plays the important role of Gu Manlu in the coming show, says she will present a difference Gu this time.
“Gu Manlu is commonly seen as a very ‘bad’ character in Chang’s ‘Eighteen Springs,’ but this time the director guided me to present a Gu that is not annoying,” Xie states.
“Unforgivable but understandable” — this is the new Gu that Xie will portray in the show.
Woo is preparing his next work, which is also adapted from Chang’s work “The Red Rose and the White Rose.” It’s scheduled to be staged in Hong Kong in December.
The director says he is staying faithful to the scenarios and beautiful language in Chang’s works, but at the same time being creative with staging, music and multimedia technology.
“‘We cannot go back anyhow’ — this classic line is always expected on the stage. Actors and audiences are expecting this moment,” Woo says, adding that classic lines in Chang’s works are hard to change.
“This is Eileen Chang. When audiences hear the lines written by her, it resonates,” says Zhou.
At the same time, the theater is evolving technologically and is able to present a classic novel in more creative ways by using different stage settings, according to Woo. In the upcoming show, there will be a clock hung on the wall, reminding about “time” — this key concept in the original novel.
“Theater is a space. The relationship between audiences is in this space,” Woo says. “The element of space is connected tightly to ‘time’ in the upcoming show.”