It's not every day that a director instructs his audience to avoid the front seats at a performance of his own production. But that was exactly what celebrated Chinese avant-garde director Meng Jinghui cautioned as his new adaption of a play, which he has titled "Metamorphosis of Butterfly," opened last week in Beijing. And why? The piece features some 20 tons of mud and sand on stage to invoke an abandoned industrial city. And mud flies over the course of the turbulent drama.
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This epic set is just one element that has raised eyebrows over the new play, which also features content that is unusually racy for China, and even some hints of edgier social commentary. Meng is something of a sensation on China's theater scene, having produced popular productions including "Rhinoceros in Love" and "Love is Colder than Death." These successes made his name a box-office draw, and his hip productions have drawn more and more young people back to the theater.
"Metamorphosis of Butterfly" is inspired by the play "The Visit" by the Swiss author and dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921-1990). It follows one woman's quest for revenge, as she returns to her hometown after becoming wealthy elsewhere. She offers a large amount of money to aid the town, but with a catch — the townsfolk must assist her in a plot to kill her ex-boyfriend, to get back at him for abandoning her while she was pregnant.
Meng has preserved the original theme of Durrenmatt's play, which examines the relationship between money and morality — but his production also uses these themes that reflect on present-day Chinese society. "Everyone in the play is shameless," Meng told JF Daily following a performance in Beijing. "However, as shameless as they are, they are better than the society they live in."
For Chinese theatergoers the provocative dialogue, as well as one particularly explicit sex scene, is startling. On Weibo, a popular micro-blogging service similar to Twitter, the final scene — which has the actors strip down — became a hot topic. "The erotic dance and the stripping scene at the end were the highlights of the play," one Weibo user commented approvingly.
Yet even as he has assumed the role of envelope-pusher in terms of stagecraft and storyline, Meng still finds himself playing a balancing act with local taboos. "If I were staging the play outside of China, I would definitely ask the actors to get completely naked at end," he confided to JF Daily. For the moment, the ending scene is something of a compromise — actors wear nude-colored bodysuits instead of actually baring it all.
The "Metamorphosis of Butterfly" will be playing until April 9th in Beijing, before traveling to Shanghai on April 12 for another two weeks of performances.