Monday, September 26, 2005

Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine

Much of Saturday is spent at Rose Bruford College, wearing my other hat as a tutor on the Distance Learning Programme. I do a workshop on space for the theatre students, and lead a discussion about "what is art?" (based around Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper sculpture) for the opera ones. Since I met Nesta the other day, I've been feeling that these two hats are actually getting a bit closer together, and today confirms it when Jayne Richards (who runs the Theatre Studies programme) suggests that she should use Dis-Orientations as the case-study for a chapter she's been asked to write in a new book on devised theatre. This is really good news for the company: anything that shows we're being taken seriously, and that our practice is worth studying and recording. Jayne is amazed when I say she can come and watch rehearsals: apparently most people are very precious about this, especially for devised work (I suppose the crazed secrecy surrounding Mike Leigh's recent process at the National is a case in point). I don't see why people think like that: we aren't in all honesty doing anything secret, really. And it's contradictory: why advertise a piece as "devised" if you won't allow anybody access to the process? Why make the process an issue if you're not willing to talk about it?

To the Barbican for The Dragon's Trilogy: a revival of the first Robert Lepage production I saw, a full fourteen years ago. I'd been full of ambiguous anticipation for this: hoping to relive the mind-expanding and emotionally wrenching experience of 1991, and dreading that it will all be a terrible let-down now I'm older and "wiser". I needn't have worried. This production remains one of the finest pieces of theatre I have ever seen. What's extraordinary is that it should still feel so innovative after all this time: there are still so few practitioners who dare really to take risks with the poetry inherent in the form. Most of the profession are still enslaved to showbiz or naturalism.

I'd wondered whether the play might be a useful pointer for my work in China, since I remember very well the elements of Chinese theatre in the piece, and the sense of a dialogue with the Orient. But, coming back to it now, it doesn't feel to me as if it's really about China at all - as the very first line "Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine", bears witness. It's about the Québécois , their struggles (especially in terms of language) to find identity for themselves both within Canada and in dialogue with the world. The Chinatowns of Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver become images of that: little islands of a different culture, which remain unknown and perhaps impenetrable. Certainly in the early sections, the Chinese characters (most of whom are literally faceless) never move beyond opium-den clichés, but in a way that's the point, since these Chinese are imagined by young girls playing. It's only in the final sections, when a real Japanese artist comes into the life of the Québécois artist Pierre, that there is a real engagement. And so the play ends with Pierre's decision to visit China as a way of moving himself forward, as an artist and perhaps also as a human being. This is a moment which is full of personal resonance for me today.

Haili's been sending me advice about the little presents I need to give to the people I meet. The only rule is that they shouldn't be made in China. Trying to buy things, this proves easier said than done!

1 comment:

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