Maidment Theatre, Auckland

08/03/2013 - 12/03/2013

Auckland Arts Festival 2013

Production Details


Credit checks of prospective partners, a flooded stage and Mandarin rhyming slang are just some of what audiences can expect from China’s most renowned play of all time, Rhinoceros in Love, which opens on 8 March. Auckland Arts Festival is delighted to be bringing the National Theatre of China and this ground-breaking masterpiece of contemporary drama to New Zealand for the first time.

Revolutionary and refreshing, Liao Yimei’s beautiful allegory gives voice to the maladies of young, urbanised Chinese, lost and in love. Weaving tragedy with humour, it tells the tale of rhinoceros keeper Ma Lu, a man who develops a dangerous romantic fascination with his neighbour, the unobtainable Mingming. Ma has done everything in his power to win Mingming’s heart until one night, mad and stubborn as a rhino, he captures her and holds her hostage. An edgy and energetic production, dusted with dark romance, Rhinoceros in Love exposes the extremes people will go to for love.

Directed by Yimei’s husband, Meng Jinghui, and first performed in 1999, this dynamic work reinvented modern Chinese theatre. August 2012 marked Rhinoceros in Love’s 1000th performance and it is still going strong, playing every night in Beijing to packed houses and touring to international festivals, including Brisbane and Melbourne Festivals where the show was one of the must-sees.

Innovative staging combined with a soundtrack straight from the C-Pop Top 20, the 20-year-olds in this absurd world are swept up in a turbo-charged consumer culture and find the path to true love in ways far from the arranged marriages of their parents and grandparents.

Liao Yimei is the resident playwright of the National Theatre of China. Along with Rhinoceros in Love, she has also written a number of successful films, including Chicken Poet (also directed by Meng Jinghui), which was accepted for numerous international film festivals and won the FIPRESCI Award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. A Tender Song won a gold medal at the Memphis Women’s Film Festival in the US. Liao has also written novels Pessimist’s Bouquet and Amber.

Meng Jinghui – known as one of China’s most innovative directors – founded the Beijing Youth Theatre Festival in 2008 and has served as Artistic Director since then, along with his role as Director of the National Theatre of China.

The 60-year old National Theatre of China is China’s largest permanent theatre company with over 600 employees and 300 actors on staff. It has three modern venues in Beijing as well as touring nationally with many productions each year. At any one time they are creating new productions as well as presenting in Beijing and on the road. The Company has performed internationally at many festivals, including Avignon, Edinburgh and Melbourne. In March 2013, it will premier The Green Snake, a new co-commission from Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Shanghai International Arts Festival. The Green Snake is a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland. Both companies will be at the Auckland Arts Festival 2013.

Visually rich, the dialogue is fast, the music modern and the result is emotionally engaging. – The Age.

This is a dark, edgy production that burns in the memory long after the final curtain. – Australian Stage

Rhinoceros in Love
Maidment Theatre, Auckland University
Friday 8 March – Tuesday 12 March, 7pm 
Duration 1hr 45min no interval
Language Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles 
Contains coarse language, smoke
Post-show talk Monday 11 March 
Price A Res $65 / Friend/Conc/Group $59 
B Res $53 / Friend/Conc/Group $48

Bookings Book at THE EDGE: www.buytickets.co.nz / 09 357 3355 / 0800 289 842
Group bookings: groups@the-edge.co.nz / 09 357 3354
Maidment: www.maidment.auckland.ac.nz / 09 308 2383 

Cerebral, impassioned, increasingly visual

Review by Nik Smythe 10th Mar 2013

One white-clad bed pokes out catwalk-like from the front of the stage, by a small TV monitor displaying perpetual white noise.  Another low-standing bed lies on the stage to our left; on the right a raised rostrum inside a large metal frame.  Five plastic-wrapped dining chairs fill the stage between, and the three stage walls have gigantic plastic sheeting hung like curtains from the the fly rig.

Zhang Wu’s distinctively avant-garde set design is a felicitous platform for accomplished Mandarin playwright Liao Yimei’s first script, written in 1999, now a cult classic. Her script is at first very wordy with mainly static visual elements such as leading love-interest/monomaniacal obsession Ming Ming as she first appears, seated and blindfolded, as protagonist Ma Lu, an earnest and sensitive Rhinoceros keeper at the local zoo, imparts a verbose diatribe of passionate declarations and cerebral philosophising.

Meng Jinghui, reportedly a major patriarchal figure in the Chinese avant-garde theatre world, has directed a remarkably elaborate, verbally effusive work distinguished by its poetic testimony and increasing visual intensity. Focusing on the young would-be couple’s frustrating tragic-comic fable, Ma Lu’s hapless wooing of Ming Ming echoes the pathetic unrequited devotion of Pip in Great Expectations, but the comparison ends with Ming in turn becoming hopelessly obsessed with her contemptible, abusive lover.

Simultaneously, the play showcases modern ‘westernised’ Chinese youth culture, referred to by one incidental character as ‘generation AY, for Angry Youth’, exploring the plethora of messages aimed at them through television and the internet.  This often comedic examination of cultural dos and don’ts juxtaposes the fervent melodrama, resulting in a richly textured theatrical product. 

The supporting cast includes four vaguely archetypal young men – the pretty-boy in the snappy grey suit, the lanky hippie, the waggish beatnik and the nerdish bespectacled toothbrush salesman, Toothbrush (the only one who’s name I managed to get).  The two young female supports are similarly contrasting with one quite bright and bubbly, the other more stately and saturnine. For reasons I can only guess at, the actors are not credited in the programme. 

The subtitles projected on both sides of the stage are an obvious necessity for non-Mandarin speakers.  There are occasional typos and at times they appear out of synch with the dialogue, plus there are scenes when it’s difficult to watch the action and read the lines at the same time.  I estimate I missed up to half the words, though there are numerous instances of repetition, particularly as Ma Lu reverently declares his incessant love for Ming Ming and his enduring respect for Tula, the black African rhino in his charge. 

Sound designer Yan Guihe carries the juxtaposition concept through with an eclectic score that includes classical, heavy industrial, Chinese folk and pop songs (capably sung and harmonised by the cast), and one or two Western jazz standards.   Zhang Jian’s lighting design is also a major force, notably the impressively dynamic shadow-play providing gravitas in key scenes between the leads. 

To a large extent Luo Yuan’s costume design, like the production design overall, is a colourless palette of blacks, whites and greys, the consistent exception being Ming Ming whose respective bright hues pull our focus to her along with Ma Lu’s.  And if Wu’s set seems decidedly abstract to begin with, the transformation it undergoes as the story plays out is surprising and severe. 

I find Rhinoceros In Love to be a befitting initiation into Chinese theatre of this stylised, cerebral nature.  As engaged as I am, it falls short of emotionally transporting me to any degree, possibly due to the overwhelming production values, if not perhaps a simple cultural divide. 


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