In the wider world of theatrical triumph, Rhinoceros in Love is not the heavy hitter that its title might seem to suggest. Compared to Broadway smashes like Cats and the Lion King, for instance, its 270-show run looks a little lightweight.
And in terms of the longest running production of all time, the rhinoceros is totally dwarfed by the rodent. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has racked up more than 23,000 curtain calls since opening in London’s West End in 1952.
But if not quite a wildfire hit, Rhinoceros in Love has still become something of a dramatic fixture in the Chinese context. Meng Jinghui’s production has come up from the grassroots, since first playing on the small theatre circuit a decade ago.
Its avant-garde and experimental feel may have unnerved early audiences but it has gone on to build up a strong reputation over time, especially with the young and with female fans.
Rhinoceros in Love now enjoys a status as the “Bible of love for the young generation”, according to the Nanfang Daily. The Wenhui Daily agrees that the tragic tale of rhinoceros breeder Ma Lu’s unrequited love rarely leaves the audience dry-eyed.
The playwright, who says he has never been interested in chasing crowd-pleasing success, admits that his relationship with audiences is one that has needed to be nurtured. “I don’t just make what the audience likes,” says Meng, ”They are a pile of carrots. You have to plant them, then they will grow and you will get paid.”
Away from the imagery of the vegetable patch, Meng has a loftier view of his own place in the thespian hierarchy. He reckons his contemporary style is more appealing to younger audiences than Shakespearean drama. He thinks too that his work fares well in comparison to that of China’s most famous twentieth century dramatist, Cao Yu.
He shares a few similarities with Cao too. Just as Rhinoceros in Love has challenged established dramatic norms (especially in its mix of contemporary dialogue, striking scenery and musical lyrics) so Cao’s most famous work, Thunderstorm, broke the mould in 1933.
Cao employed spoken drama in his productions, rather than the song structure of Chinese opera that was dominant at the time. Shocking his audiences helped too, and Cao went for the literary jugular with a tale of illicit sex and unwitting incest.
Sadly, the theatrical world remains a largely inaccessible one to most Chinese. The price of tickets doesn’t help. Good seats at the top rated performances can cost up to Rmb600 ($88) or ten times a trip to the local cinema.
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