A giant statue overlooks the stage, faceless yet easily recognizable as the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong — the political undertones of “Mr. Big,” a new play about Lu Xun (1881–1936), modern China’s most celebrated writer, are not to everyone’s liking.
“Mr. Big,” written by Li Jing and directed by Wang Chong, interprets Lu’s legacy in a modern, artistic way, symbolized by having lead actor, Zhao Lixin, portray Lu Xun dressed in jeans and a white shirt.
The play opens with the Lu’s soul on its way to heaven after his death. The writer is the only actor displayed in the flesh; the other characters — Lu’s wife, brother, and critics — are depicted as masked puppets. Near the end, Lu Xun climbs into the faceless statue to overturn a red chair, symbolizing authority. The drama ends with a group of people surrounding his dead body, commenting about how thin he looks.
Near the end, Lu Xun climbs into the faceless statue to overturn a red chair, symbolizing authority. Courtesy of Culture Wuzhen Co., Ltd.
Lu’s writings, often critical of traditional Chinese society, were embraced by the Communist Party of China. His essays and short stories continue to appear in school text books in China to this day.
“Mr. Big” refers to Lu’s nickname among his family members. The play completed its four-day run in Beijing by the National Theatre Company of China in early April.
Well-known figures of China’s artistic circles have come out in praise of “Mr. Big,” hailing it as another masterpiece of Chinese drama which adds fresh elements to the complexities and richness of Lu Xun.
Li Longyin, the Beijing Dramatists Association’s vice president, considers “Mr. Big” an important breakthrough in Chinese drama. Lu Xiaoping, a professor at Nanjing University, called the play a “candlelight in the darkness of today’s Chinese drama creation.” While actor Hou Yong said the play was “as shocking as a nuclear weapon.”
But other commentators have objected to the political themes of “Mr. Big.”
Drama critic Bei Xiaojing (a pen name), wrote in his review of the play that while he appreciated the actors’ performances he thought the play itself was overly political.
Luo Gang, a professor of Chinese modern and contemporary literature at East China Normal University, told Sixth Tone that he thinks “Mr. Big” is just one more example of people using Lu Xun to promote their own agenda. “There are people defaming Lu, there are people utilizing Lu, but what is really missing today is reading Lu — reading his actual words in earnest,” he said.
Still, the play’s director Wang Chong isn’t overly worried about such criticism. “Lu Xun has always been a battlefield of ideologies,” he told Sixth Tone. Playwright Li Jing told Sixth Tone she thought the political dimension of “Mr. Big” is not important.
Though dates have yet to be confirmed, there are plans to take “Mr. Big” on a national tour, with Shaoxing, Lu Xun’s hometown in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, the first destination.
With contributions from Dong Heng.
(Header image: Actors from the National Theatre Company of China perform ‘Mr. Big’ in Beijing, March 31, 2016. Visual elements symbolic of the Cultural Revolution are seen on the stage. Courtesy of Culture Wuzhen Co., Ltd.)