Retro Review: THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu (2009)

CTG’s 2009 Mandarin production was a performance of Thunderstorm, a play that occupies an important part of Twentieth Century Chinese Theatre tradition both in terms of its success and its confronting subject matter. Thunderstorm operates on a staged premise of dramatic intrigue – where two generations of relationships between an upper class family and their servants become intertwined into tragedy.

These incestuous relationships were apparently considered scandalous in 1934, but to a certain extent the horror has diminished in impact for the modern audience. In an age where we are somewhat desensitized to suffering and abhorrence there was perhaps a little less drama in the situation. From such a classical premise the audience can clearly saw the ‘reveal’ and how it would destroy the characters. In fact these faulted but empathetic characters ploughed on through the action, it was as if they were victims to the plot as well as fate.

Cao Yu’s script may be long, far fetched and frustrating but his strength was to write multi-layered characters that are never exactly as they first seem. This left the audience in unique positions including sympathising with the promiscuous Ping who was not only managing a long-term affair with his step-mother but was about to elope with his step-sister.

The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the quality of the cast, who all managed to create commendable performances despite the difficult subject matter. With a show of only ten cast members there is no space for mediocrity and nowhere to hide and everyone delivered convincing, well directed performances. Those who played the older generations were assisted with realistic makeup but their physical representation completed the effect remarkably. The focus of the actors was also impressive considering the inattentiveness of much of the audience on the night I attended.

I realise when dealing with a play that comes attached with success and traditions there is a reluctance to tamper with the original text and perform it as it would have been eighty years ago. However it is often worth taking off the gloves, grabbing the play with your bare hands and moulding a new adaptation that as fresh piece of theatre will better resonate with your intended audience. Thunderstorm would have been much more accessible to a contemporary audience had it been adapted with that specific demographic in mind.

For those not fluent in Mandarin, finer details too, may have been lost with the translation – the subtitles whilst good were not quite as comprehensive as previous CTG shows and unfortunately there were a few technical hiccups in the process. Of course, this will tighten as the season progresses and it was still possible to understand the majority of the action. That CTG goes to the trouble of providing subtitles is fantastic as it lends a welcome inclusiveness to their performances for any audience member not fluent in the language.

Using realism in tackling such a cumbersome text is commendable and worthwhile, yet there remained a connection missing between this show and the audience. Engaging the audience is an integral part of the theatre experience and needs to be considered when performing long-established works to a generation that filters societal, family and political thunderstorms everyday through the media.

Semester 2 2009 > again review for Union House Theatre.