Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chimerica

Chimerica at the Almeida
I hugely enjoyed Lucy Kirkwood's new piece Chimerica at the Almeida.  It's very striking just how much it has in common with Consumed, and the two Chinese plays in the Trilogy, Dis-Orientations  and Re-Orientations.  It's what they call the zeitgeist: we're very aware of China as a force in the world, and as the key element in global culture that we are currently trying to understand.  As Martin Jacques (whose book When China Rules the World is cited by Lucy Kirkwood in her programme note) put it in the piece he wrote for the Consumed programme: "Our ignorance about China is of Himalayan proportions. We insist on understanding the country through a Western prism. We are so used to thinking and believing that everyone should, or will eventually be, like us that we refuse to recognise that China is profoundly different, always has been and always will be."

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.

2 comments:

Vera Chok said...

Thanks for this article. On the point of, "our theatres seem to like their Chinese heroes in captivity, being tortured and interrogated by Kafkaesque authority figures."I wanted to say that I think that "The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei" is an Ai Wei Wei project, initiated by the man himself i.e. the show came into being because he wanted his story performed. So it's not really as if "British theatre" created a piece showing the romance of a Chinese hero in captivity.

Michael Walling said...

Dear Vera
You are, of course, quite right. Barnaby Martin flew to Beijing when Ai Weiwei was released, and managed somehow to get past the sleeping guards to meet the man and talk to him - so that play is in a way autobiographical. On the other hand, its success with UK audiences is to do with our desire for a particular type of heroic story in relation to what is regarded as a repressive regime - it fits very well with the traditions of Arthur Miller, Robert Bolt etc.
But your point is important - Howard Brenton has said that he felt in writing the play, he was part of a larger Ai Weiwei project, and I don't for one second discount the significance of that.
Michael