Wandering in the Garden, Waking From a Dream (遊園驚夢), a play that had its world premiere back in 1982 and which is based on a short story first published in 1966, will see a star-studded revival at the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (國父紀念館) this weekend before going on a multi-city tour of China in December. This is an old-fashioned, proscenium-style drawing room drama, and though in some respects it is showing its age, this production has been given new life by the mix of top talent from China and Taiwan.
The play is a celebration of many things, not least author and playwright Kenneth Pai’s (白先勇) decades-long love affair with kun opera, an operatic form that he has been a key figure in reviving through two groundbreaking productions over the past decade. This all seems rather appropriate in a year when kun opera celebrates the 10th anniversary of its selection as one of UNESCO’s masterpieces of “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
The present production of Wandering in the Garden, Waking From a Dream is notable for the presence of Shen Dieli (沈昳麗), an emerging star of kun opera from China, as well veterans Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), a Beijing opera diva who has recently been venturing into dramatic and experimental theater, and Hu Jin (胡錦), an old-school film actress with a solid grounding in Chinese opera.
The presence of these actors, along with many other established names, gives a solid core to one of the key features of Wandering, a drama that is deeply inspired by the classic kun opera The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).
Superficially, Wandering tells the story of a gathering of women for an evening of songs and music.
During a performance of extracts from The Peony Pavilion, Mrs Chien, the widow of a Nationalist general and a former opera singer, recalls an illicit love affair from years past that continues to haunt her existence.
The story is about women caught up in a world of power and violence not of their making, of loss and displacement, and the power of art to interpret and transform memory. At the time the story was written, it was regarded as a groundbreaking piece of Chinese fiction with its use of such modernist devices as stream of consciousness and the interpretation of one story through the medium of another. All of this is now rather old hat, and in this respect at least, Wandering looks very last century.
On another level, however, Wandering presents a picture of members of early Republican high society and the literary and artistic traditions that dominated their world. In the play, kun opera is already regarded as a form that is in decline, superseded by the more ostentatious Beijing opera. The dialogue includes some fascinating discussion of the different forms and the artists popular during that period. There are also opportunities for the likes of Shen to perform kun opera and for Hu to toss off an aria for the amusement of friends, recreating the kind of intimate and refined setting that would have been perfectly common at the time the play is set, but which is rarely seen today.
There are hints of successful films set in a similar period, ranging from Zhang Yimou’s (張藝謀) Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛) to Ang Lee’s (李安) Lust, Caution (色戒): the love of Westernized fashions, the heady brew of new liberation and the still-powerful relics of a harsher feudal world.