On Monday morning, I took Ruihong to the airport. For the first time since a brief "chat" in rehearsals, there is nobody there to interpret. Lots of smiling, nodding and sign language, then a big hug and she's off back to Shanghai - with nothing but a suitcase of costumes we need to return and a hefty make-up bill to show for her having been here. And yet what an impact she made on everybody who saw her perform. Xinran, William and I took her for lunch in China-town last Friday, and I tried to explain to her how very deeply the audience responded to the spiritual truth in her work. But I'm not sure she really got it, through these layers of linguistic fog.
Xinran tells us that she once met Mme. Mao: and that, unlike in Ieng Un's performance, she was actually very "feminine". I remember reading how she had wanted to wear a dress on the night she took the Nixons to see The Red Detachment of Women, but realised that it was impossible in the atmosphere of her own Cultural Revolution. Maybe, Xinran says, our character should revert to femininity in the build-up to her suicide. An interesting idea for next time......
And so many people are keen on a next time. Xinran and William Ong are sure they can find a huge Chinese audience and a huge media buzz for a revival, and Ke Yasha is talking about a tour of China. Those who have seen this work respond so incredibly to it.
BUT - and it's a very big BUT - not that many people have seen it. I've been leaving this out of the blog, because I wanted to generate a bit of marketing spin, and what I'm about to say isn't positive and upbeat. The fact is that our audiences have been small, sometimes embarassingly so. It got better as the run went on and word of mouth got out: the last few shows were far fuller. But that isn't enough - and as a company we are now looking at quite serious financial problems. I don't yet know exactly how serious - but the board are worried. They've been brilliant through the run - Owen and Deborah have thrown themselves into emergency marketing and press work, with a very real effect, but we've just not generated the sort of buzz we had with Bullie's House, although the ingredients (Riverside Studios, visiting star, fascinating culture) are very similar. Why?
- The weather. The hottest September since Oliver Cromwell was alive. Not great for anybody making theatre, which is an indoor, spring and autumn industry. The moment Ruihong got on the plane, autumn descended, a month too late. We had hoped for an October run, but in the venue market you take what you can get.
- Not enough press. We had no pre-press at all, and very few reviews. Some of the ones we did get (especially in the Chinese and gay press) came too late to have the real impact. And the one key one for the mainstream, Time Out, while it was good was not quite good enough. I don't think that's a reflection on our work - it's just the taste of the individual writer, as all the web comments disagreeing with her prove.
- Maybe the marketing wasn't in quite the right places. This is hard to tell: I usually think marketing only works as a support to the press coverage - it creates awareness and then the press / word of mouth says that something you know about is something you should see.
- Blinkers. This is an ongoing issue with our work, but this show has made me feel it particularly acutely. So much so that, when Xinran and I were giving our post-show talk, I said that I felt ashamed of my culture. I do. Zhang Ruihong is one of the world's great actors - she is a Class A national performer in China, and China is one fifth of humanity. But our society is so inward-looking, so incapable of seeing beyond its own nose, that our work gets dismissed as "some Chinese thing at Riverside". Less significant than another revival of Ben Jonson or David Hare. I think this is particularly the case since our reviewers are brought up in a literary tradition of criticism and like to write about writing - which there wasn't much of in this piece. This is why Bullie was safer ground for us: they'd all heard of Tom and could write as if it was "his play". They want to write about the achievement of an individual, not a collective - totally the opposite approach to Chinese culture.
I don't want any of this to sound like sour grapes - it isn't. This production was a great success: the most beautiful, moving and profound thing the company has produced in its eleven year history. A necessary and a real engagement with another culture, setting up and using real dialogues between people, languages, ideas, histories and forms. And that ground-breaking quality, that newness, is exactly why it didn't sell. What sells is the easily categorised. The familiar. What people think they want (until, of course, they see what they really want - which is the unexpected).
I talk to Peter on the phone from Vienna. He reminds me that London's response to his Peony Pavilion was just the same. A flash-back to 1st August, and my first meeting with Nancy Crane. We talked about that production, and how we both felt that it was one of the most important theatrical experiences of our lives. What we'd both forgotten, until Peter reminds me, is that the Barbican theatre was virtually empty.