In a fast-changing society, people wonder if true love still exists: When you can get anything with money, can you also buy love?
This is debated in the play "13 Million Single Bathtubs" underway at the Shanghai Drama Arts Theater. It depicts the very realistic - or rather, materialistic - point of view that China's young generation takes toward their relationships. The number "13 million" has no special significance but indicates there are many many singles.
Like many young people in Beijing, Lemon, a 26-year-old white-collar worker who comes from a small city, works very hard to survive in the metropolis. She and her poet lover, Strawberry, are deeply in love but are too poor to get married. When Lemon meets Xu Baixiao, Strawberry's old friend who heads a business empire, she doesn't think twice.
Lemon relentlessly pursues him. In the end, she manages to marry Xu although it's crystal clear to her that he is selfish, pretentious and unlovable. All she needs are money and a better life. Love, on the other hand, can be sacrificed.
The play's message: The sad fact of China's young generation is that all their dreams seemingly can be measured by material things. On their wish list are nothing but LV bags, the latest gadgets, designer clothes and newest video games.
It is also very difficult to teach a only child how to love another person as much as he or she loves himself or herself. At the end of the day, everyone feels so lonely, just like the three main characters in the play.
According to director Xu Sixian, people nowadays have less and less time to face themselves - the bathroom is the last oasis and refuge where they can relax and think.
"A bathtub is like one's little pool in the desert, namely an industrial city like Beijing that is filled with dusts," he says.
To create a desert-like environment, Xu paves the stage with 1.6 tons of grain that looks like sand. In the center lies a plain, rusty bathtub in which all three characters take a meditative "dip" from time to time.
The cast features three graduates of Beijing's Central Academy of Drama: Huan Liwan plays Lemon, Hao Tian is Strawberry and Chen Xu takes on Xu Baixiao.
Meanwhile, the theater is preparing to stage a new round of renowned British playwright Patrick Marber's award-winning production "Closer," about another dark side of our relationships - betrayal.
The Chinese version of the play was first produced in 2005 and became a box-office hit. The English-language original has been performed in more than 100 cities and in more than 30 languages since its debut in London in 1997.
The play set in 1990s London explores the complicated relationships between two couples: photographer Anna and her husband, dermatologist Larry; obituary-writing journalist Dan and his girlfriend, stripper-dancer Alice.
It was made into a much-acclaimed film directed by Mike Nichols, starring Julia Roberts as Anna, Jude Law as Dan, Natalie Portman as Alice and Clive Owen as Larry.
"I have never read a play so many times," says director Lei Guohua. "It tells a rich, symbolic story that gives me a lot of room to recreate.
"Nowadays people are becoming more and more protective of themselves and suspicious of others," she continues. "However, in the end, they only find themselves much lonelier and easier to be hurt."
The stage and costumes will feature just two colors, black and white, to create a feeling of distance. Lei coaches the actors to perform in a "strong, passionate" way to showcase the dramatic sides of love.
There are also only four characters in "Closer" but every role is major. They will be played by four young actors from the Shanghai Drama Arts Center - Xu Shengnan, Xie Chengying, Wangyang Meizi and Zhao Haitao.
(Shanghai Daily February 15, 2008)