Published: 11:45, April 16, 2024
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Stalwart play blossoms again in double treat for audience
By Cheng Yuezhu
Director Stan Lai (right), with Luan Lan, associate director, of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, at a news conference in Shanghai on March 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Much like the peach blossoms that have just come into bloom, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, a magnum opus by US-born, Taiwan-based theater director and playwright Stan Lai, is blossoming once again across China with a 2024 tour.

Starting on March 30 and scheduled to run until the end of June, the play will be performed in 14 major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Guangdong province's Guangzhou, and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region's Urumqi.

Its unusual format combines a comedy and a tragedy on the same stage, as the storyline revolves around two stage crews, who accidentally book the same theater for rehearsals.

The comedy, Peach Blossom Land, is a farcical rendition of a utopia written by Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) poet Tao Yuanming, while the poignant Secret Love tells of a couple being separated during the War of Liberation (1946-49).

As the two crews scramble for stage space, excerpts from the two plays take turns to unfold, and the universal human sentiments presented in both become increasingly evident amid a series of absurd and amusing scenes.

Since its debut in 1986, the play has gone through 10 renditions under Lai's direction. In 2017, a special version premiered at Theatre Above, Lai's venue in Shanghai, which he founded in 2015.

Unlike conventional theater venues, Theatre Above is located in Metro City, a shopping mall in Shanghai's Xuhui district, and represents a contemporary way of theatergoing envisioned by Lai.

"I hope that theater can be closer to everyone's lives. When you come to the theater to watch a play, it's no longer a special occasion where you have to dress up to attend," says the 70-year-old director.

"You can simply come and watch a play after a day of shopping at the mall and going to restaurants. And after you've finished, you can grab a coffee with your friends and discuss the play. This is how I think theatergoing should be in our lives."

The play revolves around two stage crews accidentally booking the same theater for rehearsals. (LIN JINGWEN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Approaching its ninth year, Theatre Above has hosted many premieres, particularly of plays by Lai, and many of its productions have toured to other cities.

The Theatre Above version of the play features a cast of young performers, most of whom have been with the theater since its founding, and have performed a variety of roles in some of Lai's other well-known productions, such as The Village, One One Zero Eight and A Dream Like a Dream.

Luan Lan, associate director of the Theatre Above version of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, first worked with Lai on the play in 2006, and says that this version executes his vision in the most accurate manner.

"Performers at Theatre Above have the opportunity to work with Lai and the rest of his crew over the long term. They are able to grasp the humor and style unique to the director, as well as understand his demands," Luan says.

Last year marked the first tour of the play's Theatre Above version, with the 2024 tour covering more cities.

"Regardless of the changes over the years, the themes of the play revolve around the quest for love and the yearning for a beautiful world. Because of its universality, this play is able to stand the test of time," Luan says.

"For this tour, I hope our performers will carry with them the professionalism of Theatre Above and present an exemplary version of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land to audiences around China, passing on the legacy of this classic piece."

Although the play was written 38 years ago, Lai says that for him, it seems like only yesterday.

"I find it hard to explain how this play could possess such vitality, but I feel that wherever it's performed, the audience enjoys it, and is enlightened by it," Lai says. "It's a revelatory piece. It shows that stage art can be presented in this way, especially as many people have told us that it is the first stage production they've seen."

With this year's tour, Lai hopes that his play will serve as an introduction to theater for more people, who will reflect on its captivating but not readily apparent plot, and spark discussions centered on theater arts.