- The Chairsby Eugène Ionesco
In 1982, Eugène Ionesco witnessed a jingju(Beijing opera) adaptation of The Chairs in Taiwan, but he offered little comment on the performance, possibly because it was, according to critics, unsatisfactory. This dark farce was reduced to a series of dialogues with little reflection on metaphysics. The adaptor and performers made few adjustments to jingju's conventions to accommodate the peculiar play. Nevertheless, Ionesco was intrigued by jingju's stylized movements, which he deemed more beautiful than realistic theatre. His frustrated expectation anticipated a more thoughtfully and carefully designed xiqu(Chinese opera) rendition of the play. In 2016, Shanghai KunquOpera Troupe (SKOT) adapted The Chairsinto kunju(Kun opera) at the invitation of Suzuki Tadashi, who brought together in Toga, Japan five adaptations of the play by Asian theatre companies in different styles, for the purpose of a creative encounter. SKOT wisely took this opportunity to experiment with new ideas. But given the previous unsuccessful adaptation in 1982, one might remain doubtful about the plausibility of an intriguingly thoughtful integration.
This doubt is not unfounded for another reason. Most intercultural adaptations in xiqufor the past decades have preferred more classic plays by Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and others that share with xiqusimilar or approachable subject matter and structure. Although such similarities guarantee a smooth intercultural dialogue, they also preclude radical innovation. I was caught between excitement and disquiet when watching The Chairsand wondered: could there be alternative strategies for xiquto accommodate a so-called absurdist play? How could Ionesco's nonsensical piece offer another approach to expand the artistic boundary of xiqu—in this case, the 600-year-old kunju?
The play, rewritten by Yu Xiating, was set in feudal China, and Chinese cultural elements, poetic images, and adages ran throughout. No props appeared onstage except for two red wooden chairs and two bamboo staffs in the couple's hands. The costumes and makeup were traditional, and, while singing and dance were used, they no longer dominated. The stylized movements were prominent. All of these familiar conventions struck me as a common and pleasing kunjupiece, but at the same time, my perception within the traditional frame was also subtly interrupted and restructured by Ionesco's lines and mise en scène, particularly his treatment of nothingness.
The play opened with the wife's (Shen Yili) failed attempts to fetch water with a bamboo basket, while the husband (Wu Shuang) smiled at her conduct, saying, "did I not tell you, to fetch water with a bamboo basket only ends in nothing?" This line was a variation of a Chinese proverb that means futile effects. A keen audience would quickly associate the meaning of this action with the play's basic tone—nothingness or emptiness, which Ionesco constantly emphasizes. What followed were more games to pass the time. For example, the couple fed each other with tea and wine, first pouring them in cups, then offering them to the other, and drinking the cup or trying to make it cool before drinking—except that there were no cups, bottle, nor teapot onstage, much like earlier there had been no basket nor rope in the wife's hands. Such a technique, called xuni biaoyan(virtual acting), defines xiqu. Without extra props, all of the meaning-making games throughout this play were conducted with virtual acting, including in particular the arrival of guests. The couple hit the floor with their staff to mimic the knocking sound, but no guests appeared virtually. The invisibility of the guests was Ionesco's design. Originally, he intended a full stage of chairs moved by the couple to contrast the present chairs and absent figures, which director Ni Guangjin changed by following kunju's principles. On an empty stage, the performers used virtual acting to suggest the guests' identities and positions and to move nonexistent chairs for them, who came from all directions. The crowded house and busy guests were indicated by the couple's indexical movements and accompanied...