Rhinoceros in Love

WILL KENNAWAY enjoys a charming if bewildering evening of Chinese theatre.

China chinese Corpus Playroom culture love Rhinoceros in Love

Corpus Playroom, 7 PM, January 14th-18th, £6/5

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In China, Rhinoceros in Love is kind of a big deal—it’s been staged non-stop since 1999  with over 270 revivals.  The title nods at the play’s central allegory which focuses on a man who, desperately obsessed with his beautiful neighbour, is as frustrated in love as the rhino he keeps.

Intimidatingly, the play is performed entirely in Chinese.  The surtitles are serviceable, but there were a few problems on the opening night; occasionally it seemed like parts of dialogue were being missed out from the surtitles and sometimes the tech crew skipped through large swathes of the stuff to get to what the actors were actually saying.  (The director did arrive at the end to explain this was only an opening-night issue, so hopefully this won’t happen again.)  More problematically, I simply couldn’t read the surtitles in a few scenes—one of the first, for instance, has Chinese citizens shouting out one-liners about, I’m guessing, their daily lives and the problems they face.  Frustratingly, some were standing on big black boxes, which meant the actors completely obstructed my view in the cramped Corpus Playroom.  What’s more, if you are sitting on the bank of seats nearer the entrance then you probably can’t see them at all, since they are only projected onto one side of the stage, far from ideal in an L-shaped venue.

That said, the play benefits from a pair of pretty decently acted leading roles—as the American next to me put it, Changwei Zhou ‘acts his pants off’ as the leading man, and Sijia Liu is appropriately indifferent and ethereal as the object of his lust.  Where Rhinoceros really shines is in the little witty touches through which what might turn into a clichéd rom-com becomes playfully self-aware—at one point, for instance, an actress’s agent tries to turn the story into a play-within-the-play in probably the performance’s best scene.  Equally, sections set in a Chinese ‘love school’ are often very well done, helped by a great performance from Zhou Ou as a charismatic, pink-trousered ‘love coach’.

It is hard to ignore the problems with surtitles and the general shakiness of the production values.  The repeatedly appalling piano synth music, which sounds like something from an advert for Saga life insurance, really put me off, as did the fairly unconvincing singing sections.

At the same time, though, it is hard not to be a bit charmed by this welcome departure from the usual ADC/Corpus circuit fare.