Teahouse, Chinese playwright Lao She’s 1957 magnum opus, is the first Chinese play that has ever been performed in Cambridge. In fact, as far as the crew are aware, it’s the first Asian play that’s ever been performed in Cambridge, and the first time this particular play has been performed in English. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, the play itself spans 50 years, features over 70 characters and a full reconstruction of a Beijing teahouse complete with a roof that juts over the stage.
It’s a big task for any set of performers, let alone a student production. “I’m really nervous about the first opening show”, lead actress Sophia Luu tells me. “I feel constant pressure… to portray it accurately, and also to put my own play on [it]”. She plays Wang Lifa, the proprietor of the titular teahouse, who tries to keep the business afloat through the turmoil of the first half of the 20th century – the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the rise of warlords, a protracted civil war and, to top it all off, World War II.The vast temporal span of the play allows Lao She to comment on the various changing aspects of Chinese society across the period. Cast member Cara Fung notes “how Western culture has its influences in China, because during this period – late Qing dynasty – the Brits came over, and you see that throughout the play and it becomes more prevalent with the way they change their clothing from the traditional dudou to something that’s more Westernised”.
The turbulence of this period in Chinese history is not only present in the play, but also in the life of its playwright. “During the Cultural Revolution, he was taken, humiliated, beaten – and he committed suicide because of all this,” director Nicholas Ashurst explains. Indeed, the play was suppressed for several years following She’s suicide and was only revived in the late 1970s.
Of course, it’s difficult to convey the full weight of this historical and cultural context to an audience which probably won’t be very familiar with early 20th-century China. While the crew have tried to make it as authentic as possible – Sophia describes how producer Andrew Tan “was very adamant on the fact that we had a step towards a teahouse”, a common feature of traditional Chinese architecture – there are some things that just don’t translate properly. Nicholas talks about the painstaking process of “adapting [the script] for natural English speaking”, and how “there are a lot of things, like jokes, that just don’t work” in translation.
Something that has carried over from the original, however, is the production’s entirely Asian cast. “What was so unique about this play was the BME aspect”, Sophia says. “I’m half-Vietnamese, we’ve got loads of Chinese people, Japanese people”. That’s a rarity on the Cambridge stage, and something that the cast and crew are proud of. “It’s a massive move forward”, Nicholas says – and hopefully a sign of changes yet to come.