|Chimerica at the Almeida|
That has been very much our philosophy in making our pieces about the dialogue with China - we have always made sure that Chinese artists are involved from the beginning, as part of the creative process, devising, writing and shaping the play in collaboration with the Westerners. It's a process which recently got us onto Chinese TV: see the Propeller TV documentary at http://propellertv.co.uk/programmes/chinatown
If I have one concern about Chimerica, it is that the viewpoint of the piece is so very Western. In fairness, it doesn't pretend otherwise; and there is a powerful sense that the central character's fascination with an anonymous Chinese "hero" - the young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - is a romanticised outsider's view. But it seems odd that a play which appears to warn Westerners against imagining a China in a Western image should itself exoticise and "other" the culture and society. In particular, the main Chinese character is arrested for sedition. This felt particularly potent for me, as he is played by Benedict Wong - a wonderful actor who I also saw recently as Ai Weiwei at Hampstead. The coincidence is instructive - our theatres seem to like their Chinese heroes in captivity, being tortured and interrogated by Kafkaesque authority figures.
I don't doubt the importance of this theme. Any artist believes passionately in freedom of speech and expression, in the validity of cultural practice and open debate. Anyone with a social conscience is stirred by the plight of figures like Liu Xiaobo. But to make this the central plank in our discourse around China is to misread the culture. What is significant in modern China is not so much the suppression of culture, art and debate, as the general consensus to go along with this. A character in Chimerica says that the Tiananmen Square incident represents the moment when China shifted from a politically fluid society to one of commerce and compliance - and I would agree with that. There is, from the leadership through to the people, a real fear of the cultural gesture - because the country has lived through so many disastrous cultural gestures - not least the Cultural Revolution itself. As Ma Haili said in rehearsals for Dis-Orientations, the student unrest in the Square felt like the beginning of the Cultural Revolution again: and that was why it was suppressed.
This is not an easy context in which to make a cultural gesture. But it is also, as Ai Weiwei constantly affirms, an essential one.