Despite its warning title, director Lin Zhaohua's latest work Toilet (Cesuo) still catches audiences by surprise.
After the warning bell rings and the theatre turns dark, a popular xiangsheng (crosstalk) piece performed by the renowned crosstalk artist Ma Ji in the 1970s is calculated to catch the audience's attention.
Then the curtain opens on an amazing and unbelievable scene: Six men shoulder to shoulder are squatting in a public latrine, apparently doing their business. On the other side of the divider squat two women.
It is a typical early morning scene in a public toilet in a Beijing hutong (lane) in the 1970s.
Inside the short gray walls, the neighbors manage their movements over the shabby pits while chatting with each other, without any show of awkwardness at all. Outside, many others are waiting in line, expressing their views on political events. Occasionally, a lady comes to rinse out the family chamber pot.
Thus begins the stunning three-act play Toilet, performed by the China National Theatre Company at Tianqiao Theatre, which is on until July 11.
The play is set in a typical public toilet in Beijing where people from all walks of life gather. By showing the changes in the condition of the toilet and the troubles and triumphs of an array of characters, the play offers a changing view of society from the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) to the turn of the century.
The lead character is Xiao Shi, played by Zhao Liang, who has returned to Beijing from Beidahuang in Northeast China, where he worked with thousands of youngsters like himself during the "cultural revolution."
His mother is paralyzed and bedridden. To make a living, he takes over his father's job as a toilet cleaner in the mid-1970s. His girlfriend Dan Dan, played by Tao Hong, leaves him to join the army and marries another man.
Xiao Shi sticks with his job for more than two decades, during which time the dirty public toilet changes into a clean pay toilet and finally becomes a luxurious washroom in a five-star hotel.
During the Sino-Vietnamese conflict in the late 1970s, Dan Dan loses her husband and both her legs. Her daughter Liang Liang, also played by Tao Hong, is a naive school girl in the beginning but ends up as a drug-addicted rock singer.
People in the neighborhood come to the toilet every day. Most of them are nobodies at the bottom of the social ladder: a common laborer, a thief, a bricklayer, a homosexual, a college professor, a freelancer, a retired staff member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs... As the times change, some slip further down the ladder, while others enjoy a meteoric rise.
Through the talk that passes between Xiao Shi and others in the toilet, the play, on the one hand vividly brings out his personality, while on the other it reveals the living conditions and mentality of people from all walks of life.
Also, each of the three acts is tied to a particular era: In the mid-1970s, people talk about Kissinger's visit to China; several years later, the topic becomes the return of educated youngsters who were sent to work in the countryside or mountains during the "cultural revolution;" when in 1990s, entertainment becomes a part of people's lives, and young rock stars addicted to drugs are closely followed by tabloid newspapers and the hutong residents.
The playwright Guo Shixing is famous for his Trilogy of Beijing Idlers (Beijing Xianren) in the 1990s. Bird Men (Niaoren) centers around a group of old men who take their caged birds to the park every day; Chess Master (Qiren) is nominally the story of a man who has spent his life so obsessed with Chinese chess that he has lost all the people he loves; and Fish Men (Yuren) is a magical tale about two fishermen, one of whom wants to catch a huge sacred fish while the other prevents him from doing so.
"People's struggles are different in different times," Guo says in his essay My View of Drama, published in the third issue of the magazine Arts Studies, in 2001. "Modern civilization has filled the world with human beings and their excrement...Human beings' dilemma is being human."
The playwright has finally displayed people 'excreting' on stage.
He says that the very first inspiration came into his mind after he saw a "toilet exhibition" held in Beijing in 1996. At the exhibition, he learned a great deal about the history and development of the toilet and saw various types of toilet pits, from those used in China's Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) to the German army's camp latrines in World War II.
He was especially impressed by the principle of burying excrement and filth mentioned in The Law of Moses, which was also displayed at that exhibition. It was written into the Scriptures over 1,400 years before Christ.
In Deuteronomy, God told Moses and the children of Israel: "You shall have a place outside the camp and you shall go out to it; and you shall have a stick among your weapons; and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it, and turn back and cover up your excrement."
One year after the exhibition, Guo went to Lin Zhaohua, who directed his Trilogy of Beijing Idlers, to talk about his idea of creating a play with a "toilet" motif.
"People used to avoid talking about toilets or excretion in public, let alone presenting such things on stage. However, it is something we cannot evade in daily life and it is even a subject seriously addressed by anthropologists," says Guo.
But it was by no means an easy task, as he had to create a plot centred on toilets.
The problem troubled Guo at first, as he tried to work out an outline for the story. Late last year, the National Theatre Company commissioned him to create a new play. Thus prodded, he finally came up with the story of Xiao Shi and his neighbors.
"Without a clear dramatic plot, 'Toilet' portrays a group of Beijingers, their personalities, lives in different times and their fates. Every character should remind the audience of someone they know in their own lives," says Guo.
"The play reveals people's spiritual feelings under different social circumstances: the 'cultural revolution,' the first few years following China's adoption of its opening up and reform policy and the years around the turn of the century," says Lin Zhaohua.
"Guo is a master of black humor and Beijing dialect. 'Toilet' demonstrates these two Guo trademarks very well," Lin said.
Once the outline for the story had been worked out, the next problem was how to handle the toilet on the stage, as toilets involve scenes that are normally considered too private to be blatantly presented on stage. But if the audience could not see the toilet on stage, or could not see the scene inside the toilet, how could the stories happening in or around the toilet be told?
Lin first wanted to use a wall about half the height of the human body, behind which those who were urinating would show the audience only the upper half of their bodies, while those who were defecating would only show their heads.
But he decided this would not be impressive enough, so he worked out a much bolder idea -- having all the characters squat facing the audience in the first act, in a faithful representation of the public toilets in Beijing's hutong in the 1970s.
In addition, the backdrop curtain, the xiangsheng crosstalk, aired during the three breaks and the final scene, which features dozens of white flush toilets, serve to round out the play.
Behind the three different toilet sets for the three acts, two backdrop curtains feature Beijing buildings, which change for each of the three acts.
Three xiangsheng skits are aired, one at the start of the play and the other two during the breaks between the acts. The xiangsheng performances take the audience's attention away from the set changes, but also set the time frame for each of the acts as each one of the three pieces was popular during a different one of the time periods of the three acts.
The play ends with a royal flush -- all the performers sitting on the porcelain flush toilets.
(China Daily July 8, 2004)