Green Snake

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The National Theatre of China reworks the White Snake legend with its Scottish counterpart, writes Edmund Lee.


The folk legend of the White Snake, which charts the quest for two demon sisters to take on human form and experience love, is familiar to many Chinese viewers. Having attended two stage adaptations of the story as a teenager, acclaimed director Tian Qinxin of the National Theatre of China first came across Tsui Hark’s movie Green Snake (1993) in 2005, and was instantly dazzled by the idiosyncratic visuals. More importantly, the experience urged Tian to return to the movie’s original source – Hong Kong writer Lillian Li’s eponymous novel – which is itself a thought-provoking re-imagination of the Chinese legend through the perspective of the 1,000-year-old White Snake’s ‘younger sister’, the 500-year-old Green Snake.

“When I read Li’s novel, I couldn’t help but think that the story was very cruelly written,” says Tian, whose own theatre adaptation of the novel is set to receive its world premiere at the Hong Kong Arts Festival this fortnight before travelling to Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and Scotland. Shifting the focus on White’s perseverance with fidelity and quest for everlasting love, Li’s take on the classic romance begins with the lust that envelopes both White and Green, as desire gradually turns into love, jealousy and heartbreak. “Through the two snake [demon] protagonists, the novel reveals their suffering as a consequence of taking on the identity of women,” says the director, who stresses the female sensibility that she’s injected into the fantasy romance.

Qin Hailu, Tian’s lead performer for the production, agrees with the director. “While [the role of] White Snake may be taken to represent the traditional female in a feudal society, Green Snake is less in the ‘mainstream’ in terms of her values. The character is probably closer to the contemporary image of women,” says the 34-year-old Chinese actress, who is perhaps best known in Hong Kong for her award-winning role in the Fruit Chan movie Durian Durian (2000), as well as her Hong Kong Film Award-nominated supporting part in last year’s A Simple Life.

Qin is no stranger to headlining Tian-directed stage productions of classic tales that have enjoyed past acclaim for their screen adaptations. Apart from playing the role previously embodied by Joan Chen in the Stanley Kwan film Red Rose White Rose (1994), which was based on the Eileen Chang story, the actress has also played a leading part in Tian’s theatre production of Lao She’s Four Generations under One Roof, which had been adapted into a successful TV series. “As the reception of both was quite good, I don’t feel any extra pressure this time,” says Qin, who has the simple task of replicating Maggie Cheung’s role in the movie Green Snake, which she watched while still a university student. “I thought she was gorgeous in that movie,” enthuses Qin.

Tian’s decision to cast Qin and the actress-singer Yuan Quan respectively in the roles of Green and White turns out to be partly related to the two’s experience in Beijing opera, which the director considers an advantage in her bid to ‘convey the ambience of Chinese theatre’. According to Yuan, Tian’s wish to stage Green Snake was in place for much longer than the ‘five years’ that the latter often alludes to nowadays. “I actually first heard about her interest in adapting this story a decade ago,” says Yuan, who last worked with Tian in 1999 and has been looking to collaborate with the director again ever since. “This story and the character of White Snake are known to most audiences. While I realise I’ll be under pressure [to perform], the situation may also push me to improve and give even more brilliant performances.”

Unusually for a mainland Chinese production, Green Snake has enlisted technical direction from members of the National Theatre of Scotland, which Tian and her peers eagerly approached after watching the company’s piece The Wheel at the Edinburgh Festival. As part of the prep work, the European creative team has been taken on a research trip in China – a chance both to get acquainted with the Chinese crew and to gain first-hand experience of the main locations that the story is supposedly set in, including the famously scenic West Lake.

“We have looked at visual references from [both] China and Europe, and ultimately I think director Tian is keen for us to bring our European impressions and style to this piece,” says lighting designer Natasha Chivers, who suggests the most useful instruction given by Tian has been ‘to absorb China and the Chinese culture but not feel bound by it in working on the piece’. “I think the audience will see a European-style version of this powerful and classic Chinese tale, which will hopefully help them see Green Snake in a new light,” adds Chivers, possibly pun intended.

In any event – and for better or worse – Green Snake is sure to intrigue as it’s an unlikely collaboration among artists from two rather different cultures. “We’re working on a contemporary version of one of the most famous Chinese folk stories,” says the UK-based German set designer Merle Hensel. “As non-Chinese designers we can contribute to a fresh look at a traditional part of Chinese culture, since we are looking at it from the outside rather than the inside. Tian is interested in seeing and maybe rediscovering aspects of her culture through my eyes. This gave me a great freedom but also challenged me immensely – which is always a very exciting combination when creating.”

Green Snake 青蛇 is performed at HKAPA’s Lyric Theatre, Thu 21-Sun 24, in Putonghua with English & Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

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