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Mina Choi Tenison

Rong Li

Playwright, Shanghai, China


Li Rong on the challenges of bringing Yu Hua’s Brothers to the stage

The biggest literary splash last year in China was the much-awaited epic novel by writer Yu Hua, whose previous novel "To Live" is still regarded by many as one of the best Chinese novels of the last two decades. "To Live" rose to international fame when Zhang Yimou adapted it into film starring Gong Li and Ge You, winning the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994. Despite the film’s success, the world had to wait more than 10 years for Yu’s next novel, "Brothers," a two-part epic novel which tells the tale of stepbrothers, Li Guangtou and Song Gang, whose diverging paths show the extremities of the post-Cultural Revolution, free-market China. Within six months of its launch, "Brothers" sold more than half a million copies. However, many critics panned the novel, calling it absurd” and “trash.” That said, it’s hard to dispute that Yu’s surrealist (some would say magical realist) tale of contemporary China has captured the public’s imagination.

This month, Brothers is premiering at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center. Here, playwright Li Rong discusses some of the challenges he faced in this adaptation.

that’s: How much of the original book did you keep for the stage play?

Li Rong (LR): A third of the dialogue in the play comes from directly from the book, a third of the dialogue I had to invent using the scenes already depicted in the book and the remaining third is completely of my own creation. For example, there is a beauty pageant which is only briefly mentioned in the book; I had to completely create a new set of dialogue to make it work for the stage.Yu’s novel is also not very realistic; it hails from the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, so I also had to figure out ways in which I could keep these elements and make it feasible on stage.

that’s: Did you have any actors in mind when you wrote the play?

LR: Yes, I had pictured Jiang Wu as Li Guangtou and Yin Zhusheng as Song Gang when I wrote it. Now they’ve cast Xu Zheng and Cao Yi who are also good actors.

that’s: Which character appeals to you more: Li, the peeping tom turned multi-millionaire, or Song, the safe but stolid state worker who faces disappointment?

LR: Definitely Li. Who wouldn’t? Li is a very common figure in China; but what makes him interesting is that he is neither pure good nor is he pure evil. I wanted to make the audience wonder and come to their own decision. The most difficult thing about the adaptation was the ending. I’ve already written four different endings for the play.

that’s: Four different endings?

LR: Three of them were tragic endings and (del) one was lighthearted. One ending was too sad and brutal so the director suggested a different ending. We still haven’t decided on the final ending; we’re waiting to hear from the two actors. I always envision more than one ending for a story and sometimes, I leave the ending for others to choose.

that’s: Do all four endings differ greatly from Yu’s?

LR: Yu has said from the beginning that he will not interfere with the adaptation. And he has kept true to his word. Yu has been very smart about the novel and has not responded to a single critic. And this has forced everyone to come to his her own independent conclusion. In a sense, this stage adaptation is yet another interpretation, my own.Brothers, Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, Art Theatre, 7:15pm, 288 Anfu Lu, by Wulumuqi Lu, May 24-June 10, 2007 RMB 100-300 (6474 8600)

That's Shanghai - May 2007

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