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Staging a Shanghai Original
Novelist Wang Anyi's award-winning tale of the passion, murder and betrayal of a 1940s beauty queen has been adapted for the stage, and may just become Shanghai's signature play.

What Hamlet is to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Cha Guan (Teahouse) by Lao She is to the Beijing People's Art Theater, Wang Anyi's Chang Hen Ge (Song of Everlasting Sorrow) is to the Shanghai Drama Arts Center.

With this nostalgic novel from a renowned local writer, the Drama Arts Center hopes to forge a signature piece of its own.

As one of the first cities to pioneer the staging of modern drama in China, Shanghai has produced a creditable handful of quality plays like Sunrise, by renowned playwright Cao Yu, and Shang Yang, by playwright Yao Yuan. But like all true artists, what Shanghai theaters like the Drama Arts Center really yearn for is to create a true Shanghai original, their very own indigenous play. And next month, they will -- with Chan Hen Ge, a three-act play based on Wang's novel of the same name.

"We have always wanted to stage a play that represents Shanghainese life, and this is it," says Lu Liang, the drama center's artistic director.

Written by Wang in 1995, the novel is a rare contemporary literary classic, winning the Mao Dun Literature Award, China's top award for novels, in 2000. Hailed by critics as the best novel about Shanghainese life in a decade, the story follows the aspirations and muted sufferings of a beauty pageant winner from her win in the 1940s through the social and political changes that followed.

Inspired by a murder case involving a former Miss Shanghai, the story traces the life of Wang Qiyao, the daughter of a humble clerk, who wins the third place in the Miss Shanghai pageant as a high school student in the late 1940s. The crown opened new doors for Wang, who promptly dumped her first love and became the mistress of a high-ranking Kuomintang official. Tragedy struck when the official perished in an air crash just before the Communist victory, leaving her a box of gold nuggets, which she squirreled away for "a rainy day." The life of a former beauty queen and Kuomintang widow in 1950s was a harsh one, but Wang nevertheless managed to embroil herself in a series of love affairs, with a daughter resulting from one of these liaisons. The man who fathered the child refused to marry Wang, however, citing her "shameful history." That daughter was, indirectly, the source of her final tragedy: In the mid-1980s, Wang was robbed of her secret fortune in gold nuggets and killed. The murderer was a friend of her daughter's.

"Wang Qiyao's journey through life mirrors the changes in so many aspects of Shanghai the period covered in the novel, from the 1940s to 1980s," says director Su Leci. "The novel has a subtlety that penetrates the very 'bones of the Shanghainese.' It is not just a retro novel, but one with a deep humanistic touch."

Wang Anyi uses a subtle, delicate pen to draw detailed portraits of Shanghai and its people. The first seven pages of the novel, for example, are devoted to a description of Shanghai's "longtangs" (lanes), while dozens of other pages are devoted to descriptions of fashionable ladies in the 1940s, bringing to life how they embraced the city's East-meets-West character, and even gossip around town.

In director Su's eyes, the detailed descriptions and explorations of the characters' psychology that are so central to the novel and "make it difficult to adapt it for the stage."

So difficult that it took playwright Zhao Yaomin a full two years to write the script. He started out by restructuring the play into a flashback format to "spice it up," but found that format drifted too far from the original. Then he tried persuading the author to narrate the novel as a voice-over between acts, but the low-profile author turned him down. Finally, he decided to "tell it like it is."

Even with a play that doesn't deviate from the original plot, Zhao still had to make compromises. "Wang Anyi wrote this worldly story with a 'romantic pen,' but I am afraid I have adapted with a 'worldly one'," he says apologetically.

No need for apologies, says the author. "After all, the heroine is 'a daughter of the longtang,' so using everyday language fits in perfectly with the tone of the play," says Wang Anyi.

"It is inevitable that some things have to be lost in adapting this long, literary novel for the stage, but we have tried to retain its essence in the sets and the acting," says Su.

The play's three sets correspond to the three acts of the play -- the "extravagant 1940s," the "abstinent 1950s" and the "ever-changing 1980s." Taking the novel's abundant and exquisite recital of the details of each period as their inspiration, set designers Liu Xiaochun and Sang Qi have taken great pains to create lifelike reproductions of the city during each era.

In addition to poring over the novel, they have done hands-on research, visiting vintage villas and rundown "shikumen" (stone-gate) houses for inspiration, both of which the heroine once lived in. "We visited a concession-era building which still retains its 1940s interior decor, and we've fashioned some scenes after that style, using things like old-time calendars and light fixtures, thermos flasks with bamboo coverings, 'matong' (chamber pots) and 'laohu' windows (or 'tiger windows,' the small window found in shikumen attics)," says Liu.

The choice of rising television star Zhang Lu to play the lead role came as a surprise, particularly as much better known stars were rumored to have been competing for the groundbreaking part.

There were doubts about whether the 20-something Zhang would be able to portray the spirit of a 1940s woman, particularly as the bulk of the story takes place during Wang's middle age.

Those doubts are quickly dissipated when Su signals the beginning of the rehearsal, and all of a sudden, the modern young girl disappears, and a demure, elegant woman from the 1940s takes her place. Zhang pulled off the transformation, she says, by "burying myself in books about the period, studying with older, more experienced actresses and working really hard to lose my 21st-century self."

The play will be performed in mandarin with a sprinkling of Shanghai dialect for authenticity. And for those who don't understand either, the play will have simple English subtitles.

(Eastday.com March 20, 2003)

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