Theatre review: Rhinoceros in Love

by **

Dear Dad

The rhinoceros of the title is as absent as he is present on almost every scene on stage. While the real mammal is (thankfully) never seen, it is relentlessly personified by the play’s leading cast.

Rhinoceros in Love is a comic-drama about the single-minded pursuit of one’s passion against the opposing tide of social currents. This enigmatic piece is not so much about the triumph of struggle than it is about the indomitable human spirit.

Ma Lu is a rhinoceros keeper. Like his charge, his poor sense of sight is compensated by his acute sense of smell. Ma Lu is madly in love with his neighbour Mingming, herself  irrationally obsessed with another man who will not care for her.

Playwright Liao Yimei’s love story unfolds against the backdrop of China’s contemporary capitalist economy in which the urban middle-classes strive for self-development and lust for prosperity. Nevertheless, it is purely in the name of love for which Ma Lu attends English classes, IT lessons and ‘Love Tutorials’, to impress Mingming who has previously derided his choice of profession.

Watching the centre of his affection plunge deeper and harder into despair at the hands of her callous lover, Ma Lu fails to realise his own inability to extricate himself from the same morass he tells Mingming to get out of.

Zhang Wu’s set design, albeit haphazard with incongruous furniture strewn across the stage, serves the directorial vision of Meng JingHui with astounding effect. A conveyor-belt table on which Ma Lu and Mingming mindlessly run represents perhaps the metaphorical treadmill of life that works them out but leads nowhere.

Liao’s poetic narrative blurs the boundary between dreams and reality. Following a sequence of folk-like story-telling whereby subjects in one man’s dreams begin to appear in reality, Ma Lu finds himself flummoxed about whether Mingming’s unexpected display of love that seems so surreal, is in fact authentic and real.

Despite the vividness of Meng’s parody on today’s televised date-fixing game show, its playful quality has arguably taken the satire too close to the brink of juvenile absurdity. Still, his social commentary remains sharp and uncompromising; it tells of the superficial nature of modern-day romance and of the monetary embellishments that do or do not come with it. Notably, too, it observes with stylised wit, female emancipation from their traditional shackles in the 21st centry.

Meng directs a cast of talented young actors who exude exceptional élan and confidence. Zhang Nianhua’s grunting and charging Ma Lu does well in evoking images of a rhinoceros. His final cries in offering his heart to the abducted Mingming while wallowing in a shower of rain is moving by his heartfelt sincerity. Flitting around in her billowing long dresses, Qi Xi is convincing as the elusive willowy Mingming. Her unwavering love for one man and her insusceptibility to money temptation, endangered as they are in our consumer-driven society, call for respect and reflection.

There are outstanding performances too by Zhao Hongwei as the Manager, Huang Xiangli as the 4-carat-diamond bride Lili, Zhang Ziqi as the winner of the gameshow who takes Ma Lu’s rejection in her stride, Kou Zhiguo as the hapless salesman Yashua and Liu Chang, Wang Xiaoshen and FengQilong as Ma Lu’s well-meaning friends.

Rhinoceros in Love speaks to the maverick that still lurks within some youths as the rest of the Generation-Yers heave towards comfort cushioned in material wealth. Like the black rhinoceros under his care, Ma Lu chooses to be left behind in his squalid pad, impervious to seductions, stubborn in his passions and doused in the wild rains of quixotic ideals.