Heart in handwriting

By Sun Shuangjie Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/3 18:28:01

Stan Lai’s romantic take on Chekhov’s love life through his letters

Jiang Wenli received thunderous applause Thursday night at Theatre Above during the curtain call for I Take Your Hand in Mine …, in which she plays Olga Knipper, wife of the famous Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov.

A veteran film and TV actress, Jiang seldom appears in theater productions. Since her graduation from Beijing Film Academy in 1993, she has participated in only three plays, including her graduation piece.

Meanwhile, she has been featured in over 50 films and TV series, which once crowned her Best Actress at the Rome International Film Festival and China's Golden Rooster Awards.

Jiang Wenli plays Olga Knipper, wife of the famous Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov, in I Take Your Hand in Mine … Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Above

Though she humbly calls herself a "primary school student" of live performances, Stan Lai, one of the best-known Chinese-language theater masters and owner of Theatre Above, sees energy and potency in her to become a great actress onstage as well.

I Take Your Hand in Mine …, written by American educator and playwright Carol Rocamora, was translated into Chinese by Lai in 2014, and Jiang played the protagonist since then.

Inspired by 800 letters between Chekhov and Knipper during the five years before Chekhov passed away in 1904, the play recalls their love story by reproducing their lives through the contents of their letters.

It starts with their acquaintance in 1898 at a script reading of Chekhov's The Seagull, and goes through the difficult long-distance relationship between the two as Knipper stayed in Moscow to perform while Chekhov was exiled in Yalta.

Space for communication

The show features a single stage set from beginning to end, which resembles a Russian room with wooden furniture. It's Knipper's home in Moscow, but also Chekhov's residence in Yalta.

Sometimes the two sit at two ends of the space to write to each other, and sometimes they come to the middle area for reunion. If you're familiar with Lai's works, you may recognize that the stage design is taken directly from the last scene of his production of The Seagull.

Set against a backdrop of a landscape oil painting, the simple stage seems to attain a sense of eternity.

The play is text-heavy, as the story is almost all driven by the two leading roles reading out what they write to each other.

The amount of lines for each role is enormous, yet Jiang and Sun Qiang, as Chekhov, both do brilliant jobs in delivering them with proper emotion and pace.

Sun, who also played in Lai's Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, has a very understated way of delivering the talented playwright, while Jiang impresses with a long, touching confession made by Knipper after Chekhov's death.

A highlight of Lai's rendition is live music, by a guitarist and a violinist, playing Russian folk music. It turns out to be a very efficient complement, as it not only echoes with emotions of the two roles, but also offers perfect seasoning to make the show more interesting.

For Chekhov's fans

If you're not familiar with Chekhov, the play may seem a bit monotone, as it doesn't contain too many dramatic conflicts. In a way it resembles a long poem, in which everything flows unhurriedly and elegantly.

If you're a fan of Chekhov, the play offers a bittersweet love story and also a window through which you can appreciate the great writer and his era.

In their long-distance communication, audiences can not only see the private feelings of Chekhov as a lover and as a writer - through his inventive nicknames for Knipper and outbursts of rage when he couldn't write - but also they can see how he thinks of his most famous works, and insights into his interaction with other theater talents, such as Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Theater, Culture

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