Drenched in the Search for Oneself

–Musical Awakening at Beijing Exhibition Theatre (2012)

Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s greatest classic novels. It has been adapted into television dramas and various Chinese local operas, which made it a household story in China. Though embedded in the same story, the musical “Awakening” directed by Hong Kong drama director Lin Yihua wakes the audience up from the “Dream”, deconstructing the original story, and changing its narrative perspective.

More specifically speaking, this musical successfully shrinks a huge story, which narrates the fates of two big aristocratic families and more than four hundred people, into a self-exploration journey of one single character. The original, conventional Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel by Cao Xueqin set in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It provides a detailed, episodic record of the illustrious Jia clan in the Qing Dynasty’s capital Beijing. The novel describes the Jias’ fall from prestige due to corruption and disfavor with the Emperor. Jia Baoyu is the adolescent son of Jia clan and born with a piece of luminescent jade in his mouth. In the novel’s frame story, Baoyu is actually the incarnation of a god named Divine Attendant-in-Waiting who wants to experience the mundane world. He is intelligent and dislikes the fawning bureaucratic atmosphere surrounding the family. At the end of the story, when the Jia clan fell, unable to withstand the miserable fates of his beloved ones, Baoyu decides to convert to Buddhism.

The “Awakening” starts from where the novel ends.

Baoyu (Denise Ho) is back to heaven where he is the Divine Attendant-in-Waiting, but he finds himself remembering nothing, not twelve beauties (twelve girls in his family who he cherishes), not even himself. Realizing the difference between “can’t remember” and “forget”, Baoyu requests to be sent back to the past, to the Jia house before the decline of the family. He decides to experience his whole life once again, so that he can have a better understanding of his life and choose for himself what to remember, what to forget. His request is approved, under the condition that he is not to change any line of the story.

This is innovative. In a deconstruction way, the playwright (Huang Yongshi) changes the narrative perspective of the story. She made Baoyu instead of Cao Xueqin, the original author, an omniscient narrator, which makes Baoyu’s return to the past more challenging. Like a prophet, Baoyu knows what exactly is going to hit the seemly prominent family, but he is powerless to change anything, moreover, he has to pretend to be free from any concern. Such inner struggle is revealed best in a scene called ‘Interpreting the Divine Message’. One day twelve maids in Jia’s family gather to play the game in which their choice of flowers would give signs to their destinies.

“Brother Bao, you have a sentient magic jade, so you must know how to interpret the signs. Would you tell me what will happen to me?” asks Lin Daiyu, Baoyu’s ailing younger cousin and his love. She dies of sorrow when news comes that Baoyu is to marry another maid.

“In the end you will pass away as purely as you were born,” Baoyu answeres carefully, not to give any sign of pity.

“I know their miserable fates, but I am not going to tell the truth. I should give them bright outlooks and hopes for the future,” Baoyu says to himself.

The maids, all in colorful dresses, are in the prime of their life. Watching them dancing and singing merrily around the house, Baoyu retreats to the corner of the stage with a face of sadness. The dynamic happiness of the maids forms a sharp contrast to Baoyu’s static worry.

In the whole play, Baoyu is like an audience in the auditorium, looking how the performers come and go. He is antagonist, audience and omniscient narrator rolled into one. What a beautifully designed pain!

The destiny of clan Jia unfolds just the way it did. The vanity collapsed; the beloved deceased. Baoyu, after reviewing his life in a more objective and careful way, gets his awakening. There is nothing he could, nor that he wants to change. But he is determined that if he could get a second chance, he would not withdraw from the reality. He said, “Belief and reality are always in fight. But I should have courage to take the fight and guard my belief.”

In the novel, Baoyu is a highly sensitive and compassionate individual. Denise Ho, a Hong Kong singer and actress is cross-cast as him in the musical. Her androgynous look perfectly fits Baoyu’s masculine and feminine characteristics. Her natural, frank performance breathes life into the antagonist, making the role so appealing. Moreover, seven songs she sang during the play go harmoniously with the plot. While listening to her songs, I could not help believing it is Baoyu who is singing.

This musical marks the ten-year anniversary of Ho’s career as a singer. It is also the 50th play by Lin Yihua, who began to direct and write plays in 1989. Lin earned his fame when awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay in the 1994 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent to the Academy Awards and one of the major Chinese-language film awards. The whole musical is put in one single setting –a warehouse like mansion with cement pillars. This bare, sparse setting is Lin Yihua’s signature. It wraps everything, either the joy or the youth, in decay. In it, everything seems doomed.

When the play ends, snowflakes fall from above, covering the stage with blank white. Baoyu stands on it, waiting for another fresh start. This time, he is more courageous.

 

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