University of Leeds Chinese and English Studies undergraduate, Lara Owen, shares her experience performing The Sun is Not for Us, a four-star reviewed production that combines the characters and plots from Cao Yu’s four most famous plays now currently touring China.
There is nothing quite like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile during the Fringe Festival season, packed with talented young actors, comedians and crazy street performers, all trying to find an ingenious way to grab the attention of passing tourists. However, if you were not rushing to dodge the hundreds of eager performers trying to shovel flyers into your hands, you may have noticed the name “The Sun is Not for Us” 《太阳不是我们的》, written out in orange postcards on the worn away cobble stones of the Royal Mile.
Arriving at the peaceful surroundings of the city’s Confucius Institute for rehearsals a week before the Fringe Festival, did not quite prepare us for the mayhem and exhaustion that would ensue in Scotland’s capital. We were primarily preoccupied with what our audience would make of our ‘cross-cultural’ production, which was led by both Dr. Li Ruru, Cao Yu’s stepdaughter, and award-winning director David Jiang, but featured British student actors.
While devising the play we had feverishly tried to understand and internalize the language of the Chinese master, while making sure we brought our own individual perspectives to the characters’ lives. However, knowing that we had initially been left confounded as to how tackle re-writing Cao Yu’s masterpieces, with their poetic style and profound sentiments, we were still wondering if the audience in Edinburgh would be able to empathize with the heartrending stories of women bereft of hope in China in the 1930s; the wailing of a broken-hearted Chinese maiden or hysterical wife of the kind often depicted in Chinese films and opera. Would the simple costume and staging serve to make the piece as timeless as we hoped, and would the moments of pathos and humor make our characters more “human” and thus resonate with the lives of women today?
Waiting in the green room of The Space on North Bridge before our first performance, we were nervous to hear that some of the infamous band of ruthless Fringe critics, including theater directors Wang Chong, from the Beijing-based Theatre du Reve Experimental, and Davey Anderson, from the National Theatre of Scotland, would be watching in the crowd.
With the adrenalin running high, our first performance was fast paced and full of energy. As the house lights went down at the close, we were keen to get back to the green room to hear the response from critics, directors and our families. One audience member, Susan Gellaitry described the production as “haunting,” particularly the opening scene, where young women bind one another’s feet, as mothers bound their daughters’ feet in pre-revolution China.
Chen Ming, stage designer and professor at Kennesaw State University in the US, thought we did well as regards “digging deep into the girls’ psyche,” and especially liked the use of video, which accompanied moments when the plot intensified. The play features a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage, while another opts to make her way as a courtesan. A servant and her master fall in love, while I played the role of a lonely wife who seduces her stepson and is reduced to madness. One could interpret “The Sun is Not for Us” as a play which explores age-old female tensions, though the setting is detached from the lives of most women in Britain and China today. However, the audiences’ response at the Fringe demonstrated to the cast that within this complicated web of stories, the themes of love, sex, money, self-worth and social standing are ones which transcend time and culture and remain as poignant as they were when Cao Yu wrote his plays.
The closing poem of the play leaves the audience to ponder this further: “The Sun has risen, but the darkness is left behind, for the Sun is not for us, for we shall be asleep”. Having secured four-star reviews from the aforementioned Fringe critics, the cast of “The Sun is Not For Us” is now look forward to our China tour, which will commence in November at the Shanghai International Contemporary Theater Festival, and will be followed by performances in Chengdu and Cao Yu’s hometown, Qianjiang.