Home > Events
Emotional waves
Updated: 2018-01-29 08:13:18
( China Daily )

Chinese actress Chen Shu plays the lead role in an adaptation of The Lady from the Sea, which is now on its second round of a national tour in China. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Chen Shu stars as the lighthouse-keeper's daughter Ellida in a Chinese remake of Ibsen's play The Lady from the Sea. Chen Nan reports.

Chen Shu saw the sea for the first time when she visited Vietnam in 1992, as a dancer with the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble, China's leading performing troupe.

She was 15, and it was her first trip abroad.

"I grew up in a city far away from the sea, so it was an exciting moment," recalls Chen, who later became an actress, appearing in TV dramas, movies and plays. "But it was just the sea, and I didn't have any special feeling for it."

That is until she performed in a Chinese play, titled The Lady from the Sea, based on a play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1888, which tells the story of a lighthouse-keeper's daughter named Ellida, who has to decide whether to stay on land with her husband, a successful doctor, or leave her stable life for a sailor she loves.

"Ellida loves the sea. She grows up near it with her father. After her father dies, she moves to the mainland with her husband but she never stops loving the sea and wants to return to it," Chen says in Beijing.

Once she decided to accept the role, Chen recalled her experience of watching a ballet in London, which helped her understand the deep emotion the sea stirs in Ellida.

It was in 2015 and Chen spent a week in London going to the theater, watching five shows. Among the shows, she was impressed by the Royal Ballet's ballet triptych, titled Woolf Works, inspired by the books Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves by the English writer Virginia Woolf.

In the show, The Waves, dancers performed against a video backdrop of a slow-moving sea, which caught Chen's attention.

"In the beginning, I thought it was just a picture of the sea. But when I looked at the screen, I found out that it was moving very slowly," recalls Chen.

"The dance followed an excerpt from Woolf's suicide note to her husband. I was overwhelmed by the choreography and how the dance piece was presented onstage.

"The sea looked lonely, mysterious and accompanied the dancers onstage."

She embodies that feeling in her portrayal of Ellida, who she says is "troubled, but spiritually independent".

Chinese actress Chen Shu plays the lead role in an adaptation of The Lady from the Sea, which is now on its second round of a national tour in China. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Independent spirit

Before Ellida, Chen played Chen Bailu, an alluring courtesan, in the play Sunrise, which was adapted from a play by renowned Chinese playwright Cao Yu (1910-96), in 2008, and the following year Jane Eyre in an eponymous Chinese play based on a novel by the English writer Charlotte Bronte.

"It's been almost 10 years since I performed in a play. I was waiting for a role, which was imaginative and challenging, and Ellida was the one," says Chen.

Ellida is regarded as "one of Ibsen's most complex creations", who struggles between her duty to her husband and the honesty she has to herself.

However, Chen's decision to play the role was not supported by people around her, such as her colleagues and peers.

It's apparent that performing in a play is not a "clever choice" compared to starring in a TV drama or a film, for those who value the financial returns and exposure. Even in theater, the play is not considered exceptional.

Compared with Ibsen's other masterpieces, such as A Doll's House, which established the playwright as "the father of realism", The Lady from the Sea is not performed frequently and few adaptations have received positive reviews.

But Chen did not hesitate to take the role.

"When Ibsen wrote The Lady from the Sea, he was 60 years old. During his exile in Germany and Italy he longed for the sea," she says.

In his preliminary notes for the play, Ibsen wrote: "The sea has a power of attraction over me. I long for the sea. I am bound by the sea and dependent on it. I must return to it."

At the age of 40, Chen says it seems to be the right time for her to play the role.

"As an actress, I have tried various roles. Now, I am interested in those that break the traditional images of women - 'weak and obedient'. Ellida, for example, is spiritually strong," she says.

Chen was born in Huanggang, Hubei province. Her father was a renowned dancer, her mother played the flute and piano, and her elder brother is a composer.

Chen learned traditional Chinese dance from a young age and later came to Beijing to study at the Beijing Dance Academy.

After seven years of dancing with the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble, she was enrolled to study at the Central Academy of Drama, where she graduated in 2001 with a major in acting. The same year, she started working at the National Theater of China.

Wang Yuanyuan, theater director (R) [Photo provided to China Daily]

Artistic freedom

"Chen was our first choice for the role after we decided to stage The Lady from the Sea," says Wang Yuanyuan, the director, who has known Chen for long. "As an actress, she is versatile and doesn't set limits for herself."

As the founder and director of Beijing Dance Theater, which is China's premier contemporary dance troupe, Wang has choreographed dance pieces based on classic literary works, including Wild Grass, based on Lu Xun's 1927 prose poem collection, and The Banquet, an adaptation of Hamlet. The Lady from the Sea, however, is Wang's first play as a director.

Wang founded Beijing Dance Theater with veteran lighting director Han Jiang and set designer Tan Shaoyuan in 2008. The same year, she did the choreography for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, collaborating with director Zhang Yimou, with whom she had worked on a ballet version of the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern in 2001.

The Lady from the Sea is the first play by Beijing Repertory Theater, which was founded by Wang, Han and Tan in June 2017.

"When we founded the dance troupe 10 years ago, we wanted to look for artistic freedom. We have the same wish for Beijing Repertory Theater," says Wang. "The Lady from the Sea, though written in 1888, does not constrain itself with any region or year. It's a play that surpasses any particular time."

The play premiered in Shanghai in September and toured Hangzhou, Nanjing and Beijing last year. It has launched its second national tour and will be staged in Beijing from Jan 31 to Feb 3.

If you go

7:30 pm, Jan 31-Feb 3. National Center for the Performing Arts, 2 West Chang'an Avenue, Xicheng district, Beijing. 010-6655-0000.

Presented by Chinadaily.com.cn Registration Number: 10023870-7
Copyright © Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. All rights reserved