China has a strong tradition of theater, from folkloric operas to dreamscapes of shadow puppetry to the workman’s ballets of Mao. Director Meng Jinghui’s latest, however, marks a stark departure from this deeply rooted tradition of musical theater. Known for his boundary pushing and avant-leanings, Jinghui has made a name for himself with plays led by rhino keepers, and others performed behind a glass wall. This time around, he’s taking on the musical. And then, he’s taking it down.
His dystopian Murder in the Hanging Garden is a full assault on the “rubbish” Broadway musical: “If you take Rent on stage in China, it doesn’t make sense,” he told NPR, “We don’t have bohemia, we don’t have so many drug users or gay people, and we don’t do threesomes. So we use your structure, and we put our lives into it.”And so, materialism and spiritual loss take the place of drugs and threesomes in this story revolving around a disappeared real estate tycoon.
In the past, players have acted as much on stage as they have in the political arenas, telling stories of dynasties and revolutionaries. While Murder in the Hanging Garden seems aimed at China’s growing middle class, Meng warns against a strong political reading of this latest. Suggesting that events like Tianammen Square and the cultural revolution stand in for all of China in the minds of the west, he says: “These are very symbolic things, and foreigners use them to represent the whole. It’s not representative.”
China’s taste of Broadway might taste a bit different, but it should be a telling, and entertaining, re-invention.