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September 17, 2022

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‘I Did Not Kill My Husband.’ Here’s the revenge tale of what she actually did

I Did Not Kill My Husband.” But stage director Ding Yiteng’s new play that just debuted at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center leaves little doubt that the vengeful protagonist wishes she had.

The play, an adaptation of the successful, satirical novel of the same name by Mao Dun Prize-winning author Liu Zhenyun, tells the tale of a couple who decide to divorce when the wife, Li Xuelian, finds herself pregnant with a second child in the days of China’s one-child policy.

The couple plan to remarry after the birth, to stay on the good side of official policy. But the husband has other plans. Once divorced, he marries another woman, who is also pregnant. His former wife, mad with rage and full of revenge, implores officials to declare the divorce a sham so she can remarry and truly divorce the scoundrel.

“I Did Not Kill My Husband” follows the 2016 Chinese comedy film “I Am Not Pan Jinlian,” known in English as “I Am Not Madame Bovary.” The award-winning film was scripted by Liu based on his novel.

The stage adaptation, presented by Drum Tower West Theater on a rotary stage, integrates the contemporary and the traditional. It features somersaults and other movements from Peking Opera with playful rap and hip-hop. Ding calls the style “new codification.”

Audiences seem to like it.

“Life is like a vortex, and people are dragged into it by fate,” Xuan Ran said online, after watching the play. “It’s an expressive stage, and so are the performers.”

In one scene, the protagonist walks along the edge of the stage. In traditional opera, to walk along the stage edge symbolizes walking or running at night. In another scene, a county official tries to evade meeting the protagonist. He does several somersaults, which in Peking Opera signify running away or escaping.

Famed composer and conductor Tan Dun is among those who enjoyed the performance.

“I like the director’s use of light and musical beats in the play, giving the heavy theme a sense of humor,” said Tan. “The director knows how to impact the audience and tell a story in a simple and efficient way.”

Ding, born in Beijing in 1991, received his early education in the United States, where his mother spent two years doing medical research in Philadelphia before returning to China. In 2010, he enrolled at Beijing Normal University, where he joined the drama society.

In 2012, Ding took part in the Chinese play “To Live,” directed by famed Chinese avant-garde stage director Meng Jinghui.

After graduation, Ding and two friends formed a drama troupe. In 2014, their adaptation of French playwright Jean Genet’s “The Maid” caught the attention of Italian theater director Eugenio Barba, founder of avant-garde theater group Odin Teatret in Denmark. At Barba’s invitation, Ding studied with the Danish theater company in 2015, becoming the first Chinese actor in the troupe’s 50-year history.

In 2016, Ding made his directorial debut with an adaptation of the classic Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) tale “Dou E Yuan,” or “The Injustice to Tou O.” Ding also played the leading role of Dou E, a woman wrongly convicted of murdering by a corrupt court official.

Ding now teaches drama courses at Peking University while working on new stage creations. His other theatrical productions include “Frankenstein: Dream of Ice and Fire” and “The New Romance of the West Chamber.”

In 2020, Ding took part in a drama-themed reality show, jointly produced with Chinese actor and director Huang Lei. The show made Ding popular among the younger generation.

In an exclusive interview with Shanghai Daily, Ding talked about his “new codification” style and his works as a stage director.

Q: How is “I Did Not Kill My Husband” different from your previous works?

A: Most of my early works are related to youth and wounds, concentrated on self-expression. Now I feel the need to get involved in historical themes and social issues, and approach more practical, meaningful topics. This is such a work. Also, it’s a play for big theaters rather than the smaller theaters I’m used to. It requires a different aesthetic vision from a stage director.

Q: Help us to understand your “new codification” creative style?

A: I’m inspired by Barba and his theater anthropology, and created the “new codification” concept as a kind of integration of East and West, past and modern.

I have studied abroad, and the Western educational system helped me find a balance between East and West. I want integration to become the distinguishing feature of my creations.

I’m always interested in traditional Chinese culture. My drama education, including the study experience with Barba and Odin, made me realize the importance of finding a basis for my creations. Chinese folk culture is my groundwork.

Q: How did Odin Teatret and Chinese stage directors influence you?

A: It was during those days with Odin that I found another latitude to appreciating China’s traditional culture. Chinese philosophy and ideology have been condensed into the codification of its traditional art, including the patterns and performing movements in traditional opera. The tactful and tender personalities of the Chinese people, as well as their indirect way of self-expression, have been showcased in traditional art not yet widely familiar to Western audiences. I want to capture and enlarge them.

Meng Jinghui is an avant-garde director who helped make my creations sharp and incisive. Huang Lei is a far-sighted teacher. He promoted drama and lifted public exposure to the performing arts with the help of reality shows. Huang taught me to become a more comprehensive person.

Q: Did you benefit from your appearance on a reality show?

A: Of course. I personally became known by a wider audience, and ticket sales for my productions increased. The show helped us to reach out to wider circles. Popular actors are now willing to work with me.

The coronavirus pandemic adversely affected the number of theatergoers, but in the absence of international stage productions coming to China, the opportunities for local directors like me increased.

Q: How do you describe theater directors of your generation? What’s your goal?

A: It’s hard to classify us simply by words like “avant-garde” or “experiential.” We are a diverse group of people. Each director has his own vision, shaped by his own personal background.

We need to have faith in drama and theater, pandemic notwithstanding. The warmth and strength audiences can derive from live theater are incomparable.

My goal is to introduce quality Chinese contemporary stage productions to the world. A lot of Western audiences don’t think China has contemporary performing arts. I remember one foreign theatergoer described my “Dou E Yuan” as China’s “Antigone.” My work reverberated with his culture. To me, that’s invaluable recognition.


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