How a Controversial Play Captured Aranya’s Cultural Divide
For a town marketed as a kind of middle-class utopia, there’s a surprising amount of tension baked into the Aranya model. At first, it’s easy to get swept up in the quaint charms of the upscale beachside community, which is located just two hours from Beijing. The houses are a leisurely stroll from the water, and homeowners can enjoy horseback riding and golfing, or any of the town’s galleries or live music venues, all without leaving its gates. As for the tourists that have flocked to the community, they can be found snapping photos in front of its viral Lonely Library or enjoying one of the theater or film festivals on offer. The promise is in the name: the real estate developer behind Aranya says it’s derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “a quiet, secluded place where you can recover your true self.”
Indeed, amid Aranya’s Edenic atmosphere, the bustle of big city life seems to fade away. I had only come to attend the Aranya Theater Festival, but I found myself wondering aloud what it might be like to live there full time. My wife replied that every visitor had probably asked themselves that question at one point or another.
Quickly enough, however, the flaws inherent in Aranya’s mix of high culture and high consumerism became clear. The theater festival, for example, is already one of the most highly regarded events on China’s theater calendar. In just its second year of shows — last year’s edition was canceled due to the pandemic — it is already poised to rival the decade-old Wuzhen Theatre Festival. But it was hard to shake the feeling that I and the other seasoned theatergoers in attendance were essentially extras: background dressing for the tourists and property owners who treat the festival as a way to gain clout.
The two crowds rarely mingled. The dedicated theater fans flocked to KULA Compagnies’s adaptation of Peter Handke’s “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other” and could speak confidently afterward about the deconstructive “anti-play” motif present in Handke’s work. Everyone else could be found at the Italian tear-jerker “Misericordia” or calling for refunds after Sun Xiaoxing’s modern art-influenced piece “Here Is the Message You Asked For…Don’t Tell Anyone Else ;-).”
This tension between cultural and economic capital was perhaps best reflected by one of the most anticipated productions at this year’s festival: “Red.” Performed in the empty area in front of one of Aranya’s best-known viral “check-in” spots, the Aranya Community Hall, the play was directed by and starred Chen Minghao — a longtime theater actor best known for his television roles, including a star-making turn in this year’s hit “The Long Season.”
Chen was one of the three artistic directors in charge of this year’s festival, and tickets to his interpretation of “Red” were in high demand. China’s theater industry still likes to think of itself as a niche cultural circle, but the recent success of both Chen and Aranya more broadly ensured the crowd was packed with celebrities and their fans. Chen seemed to lean into the act, inviting three fellow celebrity actors — Yin Fang, Wang Ju, and Zhang Wanting, all household names in China — to perform opposite him, each for a single night.
Curiously, however, he also drastically altered “Red” into something unintelligible to anyone who hadn’t seen the Tony Award-winning original. As written by playwright John Logan, “Red” narrates the clash of ideas between the abstract painter Mark Rothko and his young assistant, Ken. As Rothko ages, he reveals an insatiable appetite for wealth. When he takes a purely commercial contract, Ken sees it as selling out and challenges him to defend the job.
Chen starred as Rothko in the original Chinese adaptation of “Red,” which premiered in 2014. Now in the director’s chair, Chen made numerous changes this time around, including starting the play inside the Community Hall — a stand-in for Rothko’s studio — where he waxes poetic about art as the audience outside the building watches through a live video feed.
When the conflict between Rothko and Ken reaches its breaking point, the celebrity actor playing opposite Chen on that night — in my case, it was Yin Fang — urges the audience to read his lines out for him.
This bit of audience participation energized the crowd right before they were invited onstage to join in a party with beer and food. It was hard to tell whether Chen was celebrating mass culture or mourning the rise of philistinism, but the end result was a tour de force. I walked out of the theater thinking he had just confirmed his place among China’s leading actors and directors, only to find the show had earned a measly 5.5 on ratings platform Douban, with one audience member giving it a single star and simply writing “?”
Perhaps a well-oiled cultural ecosystem is one where those with economic capital and those with cultural capital exist in venues appropriate to their spending power and tastes, but that is not the system in which we live. Aranya’s lack of state affiliation makes it a rare chance for fans of the stage to be thoroughly immersed in theater, whether as actors, spectators, or commentators. On the other hand, the festival’s patrons, who are also the community’s wealthy property owners, see it as a commodity, a way to easily translate their economic capital into cultural capital. The Aranya Theater Festival tells the story of China as seen in “Red”: chaotic and complex yet richly dialectical, rough and poignant, and vivid and vibrant.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Chen Minghao on stage during a performance of “Red.” Courtesy of the Aranya Theater Festival)