Friday, December 07, 2007


I took a short internal flight yesterday from Shanghai to Ningbo. No, I'd never heard of it either, but it turns out to be a huge, largely industrial city and port on the Yangtze delta. It boasts seven thousand years of history, but you wouldn't think so to look at the centre, which is like a Chinese version of Milton Keynes. Still, the cultural heritage is very much alive, and Director You got quite excited when he heard I was coming here. This is the region from which Yueju originated, before it really took off in Shanghai, and there's an ongoing loyalty to and love of the form here. Also, Ningbo boasts a campus of the University of Nottingham, which (with rumours of further outposts in India and Mexico) seems intent on global domination. The campus, with its very disconcerting replica of the Trent building in Nottingham, has so far been (perhaps inevitably) dominated by Business Studies and Accounting - but just recently has branched out into fields like Literature and Linguistics. And that's why our Literary Advisor and former board member, the Mauritian academic Roshni Mooneeram, is now working here.

Roshni is planning a conference on Intercultural approaches to Shakespeare for next year, and we spend some of the morning discussing it. I'm pleased to be able to point her to some interesting Chinese theatre-makers, once of whom, Lin Zhaohua, has a production of Coriolanus running in Beijing at the moment. I had hoped to see it - but I'm only going to be in Beijing on Monday night, and that's the only night it doesn't play. Maybe I'll get to sample his work here next year.... The conference in in September, so it may well be I'll be here anyway. Let's hope.

Don, who teaches Computing, takes Walter (a visiting Dutch academic) and myself to a tea house for what was meant to be a morning tea and develops into lunch. That gives you an idea of the rhythm of the place. Nothing is even remotely close to hurried. The tea itself is supposed to be calming, and perhaps it is, but I suspect that the ritual which surrounds the tea is every bit as important to the mellowing process. You get to this tea house through a James Bond entrance in a very unprepossessing lift - and suddenly you are in another world of indoor streams and curtained alcoves. The waitresses pour the various infusions into clay pots, using all manner of complex tactics to maximize heat and seal the aroma. After a couple of hours, during which we've talked about everything, we've become serious tea junkies. Wonderfully, they charge us the equivalent of £10 for the tea, and all the food is thrown in for free. Incredible.

Tonight, I give a talk to Staff and Students at the campus. The topic is "Cross-Cultural Collaboration in the Theatre", and this obviously means talking a lot about making Dis-Orientations, and the particular fascination and pitfalls of working with Chinese artists. As a sampler for presenting the show here, the talk is a very useful litmus test. For one thing, it's very well attended, and there are loads of questions at the end. The right questions too. Also, the temperature in the room gets very high as I show them some of the scenes. They're wowed by Ieng Un as Jiang Ching (and this is only on an OK-ish DVD), and excited by the Yueju and the ballet. But the incredible moment is when I show them the scene of Julian and Sammy's gay encounter. The tension is palpable - they've clearly never seen something like this before. One male voice hisses "Stop!" - not as a command, but as if he can't control himself. But nobody voices any objection - the questions are not about whether such material is accurate or appropriate, but only whether it will be allowed. I can only answer that I've been told we can imply such things provided they are not shown explicitly, and that from the research done into the subject, it is something which needs to be talked about.

There's a queue of students who want to talk to me privately afterwards - and it's in many ways a relief to add that it's how to make cross-cultural performance that is on their minds.

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