Visual by The Theatre Practice
28th September 2006-
By Richard Chua
29th September 2006
Cao Yu once said Fanyi was the stormiest character in the play. Indeed it is. Her eccentricity and capriciousness make her the femme fatale of this Chinese classic. What makes Fanyi a pivotal character in the play also lies in the characters around her. Thus each player has a difficult role to play. There are many other writings on Thunderstorm that provide different perspectives. But The Theatre Practice’s Thunderstorm showed exactly how important the character Fanyi is. Most poignantly, Fanyi’s madness is the only way to freedom. This review will start with the performance of Yeo Yannyann, as Fanyi, and leads on to performances by other actors in characters that revolve around her. It highlights the success of Yeo Yannyann in portraying this difficult character.
Fanyi is the young mistress of Zhou Puyuan (played by Johnny Ng), the director of a modern coal-mining company. She is also stepmother to Zhou Ping (played by Taiwanese actor Chu Hungchang), a son borne by Zhou Puyuan’s love interest Shiping (played by Chinese actor Fan Yanhua) some thirty years ago. Shiping has been driven away by Zhou Puyuan’s family because of her low status as maidservant. Zhou Puyuan assumes she has taken her life by drowning herself in a river. However, Shiping was saved and married Lu Gui (played by Alvim Chiam) instead, a low-rank manservant.
Thirty years later, Lu Gui ends up working for Zhou Puyuan and he has also brought his daughter (and Shiping’s daughter too) with him. Sifeng (played by Chinese actor Li Qian) falls in the love with Zhou Ping and gets pregnant. Their love is filled with internal anguish because Fanyi does not want to give up Zhou Ping, of whom she has had an illicit relationship. At the same time, Sifeng has to face the love of Zhou Chong too (played by Liu Xiaoyi) (a son of Zhou Puyuan and Fanyi), the second son of the family.
The story starts when Shiping arrives looking for Sifeng at Zhou’s. She meets Zhou Puyuan again, and finds out that her daughter has fallen in love with Zhou Ping, who is her blood brother. She also witnesses the discord between her two sons with Zhou Puyuan – Zhou Ping and Lu Da Hai (played by Chinese actor Ni Chao) – because of the difference in their social status.
Eventually, tragedy occurs after blood relationships have been cleared, Sifeng ends up electrocuted while running away in anguish and Zhou Chong dies the same way while trying to save her. Zhou Ping shoots himself with a pistol and Fanyi finally goes mad.
Before I comment on the performances of the actors. I would like to make a brief introduction into the character – Fanyi. She is an embodiment of the cruelness of love and sympathy of hate. In her bid to exist, she moves towards her own destruction by looking for a dreamy love that she could never attain. In her attempt to pursue perfection, she becomes vicious in her undertakings. What results in her eventual tragedy is her pursuit of societal equality and existential meanings. She represents the poetic sense of Cao Yu’s tragedy in the play.
It is clear that madness is only way to escape from the cages of feudalism in olden China, as most of the Chinese tragedies have shown, but Fanyi’s madness is more than just a result of anguish. It is a form of emancipation. Much credit of this representation on stage has to be given to Yeo Yannyann for her stunning performance. From the time she enters the scene, with the first line, to the actions on stage, she has already proven what an adept proscenium actor could do in order to make theatre alive. Her actions on stage were performed with precision, especially every time she opened the side window. Fanyi’s character does not lend itself for easy portrayal and Yeo Yannyann has tamed it with skill. As Fanyi oscillates between calmness and madness, her love and lust propels her to strive for emotional freedom. Yeo Yannyann truly illuminates the flames of love within the character living in a boring, apathetic, lonely and gloomy household.
Fanyi cannot stand alone as a character without the others. Yeo Yannyann was flanked by outstanding performances from Chinese actors – Fan Yanhua and Li Qian – the other two great women in Thunderstorm. To counter Yeo Yannyann’s fury performance, Fan Yanhua adopted a more grounded approach in portraying Shiping. Shiping is a very important role in the play. There should be strong counterpoints between Shiping and her daughter Sifeng, especially when Sifeng, being her chaste and pretty daughter who eventually took up her mother’s footsteps to misery. Fan Yanhua is indeed an experienced actor; she served up her role well with many good moments with Yeo Yannyann, especially when Fanyi and Shiping were in the room together talking about Sifeng. The conversation between them fully illustrated Cao Yu’s refined and pure sub textual undertones. And also to my surprise, Li Qian did not play Sifeng as a victim of the system, but rather an item of sacrifice for Shiping.
The male cast conversely paled slightly in comparison with their counterparts. Johnny Ng’s Zhou Puyuan did not adequately accentuate domestic autocracy. The significance of Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm is its exposure of the close political and ideological bond between Chinese capitalists and the deep-rooted feudal traditions. We could not see the dark soul of a ghastly feudal despot in Johnny Ng’s performance. Similarly, Chu Hungchang’s Zhou Ping did not show adequately the struggle of an illegitimate son as well, especially in the system where social class is the measure of one’s integrity and pride. However, Ni Chao portrayed Lu Da Hai well – the son who is comfortable with his social status; which is not difficult to portray. I was pleasantly surprised to have seen Liu Xiaoyi in a different light in the play. Although Zhou Chong is a relatively supporting character in the play, Liu Xiaoyi’s performance has improved since Lao Jiu, a musical staged by the same company in 2005. Liu Xiaoyi’s Zhou Chong came across more naturally than his portrayal of Lao Jiu even though both characters are of a similar age.
The women in Thunderstorm are the key elements in the play, especially Fanyi. And both Fan Yanhua and Li Qian have supported Yeo Yannyann well. The male actors have also demonstrated competence in bringing this classic to the local stage. Thunderstorm irrefutably is the classic of Chinese spoken drama. It has been staged, produced and researched by academics for many years. To me, from the first time I read it years ago, it was about women, the women we have always not given enough respect to, as well as their quest for love and freedom. I have made a conscious choice to structure the review along that vein. To me, the reason why Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm has achieved great success in art is Cao Yu’s ability to speak of his anger with Chinese families and society, through the women in the play.