Wednesday, October 26, 2005

China Fallout

No blogging time since I got back - I plunged straight into rehearsals for Xerxes at the ENO. Not irrelevant to the project - castrato roles and counter-tenors aplenty - but inevitably freelance work (which I have to do for financial and publicity reasons) impedes the company a bit. It will all be easier as and when we get an administrator....

Trying to follow up venues in between Xerxes rehearsals. I have a meeting with Matthew from the Phoenix in Leicester, where we've opened our last two shows and could well open the next. As usual, he's full of positive energy and ideas for engaging new partners (always a good way forward). Fix up to see Louise Chantal, who's taken over programming Riverside Studios. And talk to lots of people on email. So far, so good. Meanwhile, I'm asked to put the full proposal for the Yue company into writing. More bureaucracy. I decide I'd better do this properly; and enlist Haili's help again. I've not done it yet - this will require an even clearer head than blogging.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Stars of China

Lunch with Xu Zheng, who coincides with me in Beijing just for today. He's another person Nick Yu recommended as an exciting actor for me to meet - until I tell Mengxuan who we're going to see, I have no idea that he happens to be one of the biggest TV and film stars in China. His wife is also a mega-star: he shows me her picture on his mobile - she's wearing full Beijing Opera (female) costume and make-up for a film she's currently shooting, and looks amazingly beautiful. I worry for a minute or two that I may have stumbled into a Chinese Posh and Becks - but in fact he turns out to be a profoundly thoughtful, spiritual and culturally attuned person. We talk about the durability of Chinese culture in the face of the West, and indeed of Chinese cultures in the face of one another (like me, he's a fan of the Lama temple, and with his shaved head he looks like a Tibetan monk himself). Before long he's telling me that I have to stay in China for at least three months in order to make any sense of the culture at all, and is inviting me to join him for a long drive through the wilds of Southern and Western China. If only: but today is my last day here, with the ENO and Xerxes beckoning me next week (never mind the much-missed family). The sad thing is that he is quite right: I've scratched surfaces here, but only enough to realise that there is a lifetime's work even to begin to see what China might perhaps be. But this, I explain to Zheng, is why the piece must be made by a mixture of Chinese and British artists, and why I must not impose a view of China on it. Only Chinese voices can and should speak for China.

Today, we speak mainly through Mengxuan. His English isn't great (and although I wish that were not an issue, in practical terms, it is). But I don't want to rush decisions on that basis, especially since he's so clearly in tune with what we're planning - and we promise to keep in touch and swap video material. I have his email address and phone number, which would apparently fetch a lot of money on the streets of Shanghai.

Talking to Xu Zheng, I feel very aware of how fundamental performance is in the lives of the Chinese people. Not always overtly so - although it can be, as today when I pay a brief visit to the Taoist Dongyue Temple, and am greeted with the sight of teenage acrobats from the circus school rehearsing in the open air, with a level of skill we can't begin to imagine in the West. But sometimes it is so much more subtle - the ritual of offering and refusing a cigarette, the paying of a restaurant bill, the handing over of business card with two hands, and its careful reading. All this ritual is theatre in a very real sense; the playing of a part in society (which is different from our Western performance of the individual self): and so making theatre about China is making theatre about a life already theatricalised - which is always a very potent thing to do.

Mao understood all this, of course. Early this morning, deprived of the tourist's or journalist's camera and notebook, I stood with what must have been a thousand or more Chinese people to file past his embalmed body in the Mausoleum. In the North Hall, they lay flowers before his marble statue, offering them with the same gestures that I saw in the Lama Temple yesterday. And, in the main space, the body of the Chairman itself lies, with two soldiers on guard. It's an incredibly powerful experience, even though the body looks rather plastic after all these years of treatment. Thirty years dead, and still the object of such veneration. No, Xu Zheng is right: I have not even begun to understand.

A footnote to this journey: the moment I said you couldn't read this blog in China, it suddenly appeared on the web. Another little mystery to fathom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Arts and Action

To Beijing Arts University for a session with Zhao Lihua and two other Beijing opera performers: another woman called Hali who plays male roles, and a young man called Manyi who performs the dan (female) parts. It's fascinating to watch total gender reversal like this: the girls sport long beards (even with their jeans and T-shirts) and Manyi minces magnificently. What's intriguing is how difficult they find it to improvise anything, either within their own style or in a more naturalistic mode. I suppose this is the Chinese tradition of taking everything from the master.

In the taxi, Megxuan asks me if I've heard about the Tiananmen Square masacre. "Of course", I say. It turns out that she, who is now 22 and a post-graduate, first heard about this last week. She's amazed to hear that it was news at all in the West, never mind that it now dominates our thinking about China. Most Chinese, she's convinced, don't know it even happened, and those that do (like her parents' generation, perhaps) have decided it's safer not to know.

Between all this, I fit in a trip to the Great Wall and a visit to the Lama Temple: the home of Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing. The monks are engaged in a complex ritual which looks like a debate punctuated by powerful clapping. This place, like the Forbidden City, was saved from destruction in the Cultural Revolution by the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai. He also loved the traditional art forms, and was a dan actor in his youth......

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Beijing mists

You can't read this blog in China. It seems strange enough that I can write it, given the vast amount of filters that run all over the internet here. It's proved impossible to access my email tonight - so if you're trying to tell me something urgent, I'm sorry! I don't know why the powers that be have chosen to censor the blog: perhaps it's all online journals from the West; or perhaps it's just those which refer to China. But I can write it.....

Beijing is very different from Shanghai: much more "Chinese", if I can fall into the cliches for a moment. For one thing, the city is bathed in a constant mist from the combination of early autumn and high pollution, so that even without the opium dens one seems to see it through a weird narcotic haze. Wandering through the Forbidden City today, the light seemed filtered and diffuse, with the sun only half visible, recalling Hardy's phrase about "a sun that was white, as though chidden of God". Through the antique magnificence, huge numbers of people from all over China (and all over the world) make their way; many of them dressed in far more traditional clothes than I saw anywhere in Shanghai: men in blue Mao suits with little caps, women in red-brown or grey jackets. There still seems to be a sense of awe in their response to the palace, although it's almost a century since the Emperor of Heaven walked these cobbles and sat on these thrones. But the religion of the Imperial survives: yesterday I even saw a woman praying at the Emperor's shrine in the Temple of Heaven.

Being physically present in the theatrical space of this city, you can see how the cult of Mao is actually a continuation of the Emperor's divine status. His huge portrait hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where he proclaimed the People's Republic, and so is on the exact North-South line on which the Imperial thrones sit within the Forbidden City behind him. Moving on the same line through Tiananmen Square, you come to the vast Mausoleum, where the Chairman's body lies embalmed. This morning, an ordinary Tuesday, there was an enormous queue to file past the corpse of this man who died in 1976. And everywhere in the Square, there are soldiers. Last night I watched the ceremonial lowering of the red flag at sunset, in an extraordinary display of goose-stepping precision. At dawn, it goes up again. China may have embraced economic capitalism, but the political power of the Communist state still appears absolute to me. Indeed, the economic boom may even be the state's way of buying off the dissenting middle-class intellectuals who protested in this square in 1989, with such tragic results. Given the specious freedoms of the market, they seem to crave far less the deeper freedoms of speech, thought and self-determination.

All of this has implications for the project, of course. It's impossible not to take on board the politics in making a piece like we are planning here; but difficult to know how the Chinese performers will respond, how indeed they may be implicated in anything we do. Given the story in yesterday's online Guardian about the beating of a dissident in Southern China, the safety of our artists has to be a priority in whatever we do, particularly since the Yue company were talking about the need for government permissions for collaboration. I wonder about setting up dialogues between English and Chinese characters, in which there is a deliberate ambiguity about the politics on both sides. As with everything, we need to try it.

Mengxuan / Julia introduces me to Zhao Lihua: a young actress who plays male roles in the Beijing opera. She's actually very feminine, dressed in the height of fashion, but there's something boyish in her face which makes sense of the casting. Being young Chinese, these girls want to talk in an incredibly over-priced Starbucks, where Lihua treats me to a display of Kung Fu high kicking over the cappuccinos. I'd like to watch her in performance, though it doesn't seem this will be possible in the next couple of days. In any case, I'm far less drawn to the use of Beijing opera than I am to Yueju: the latter has an established tradition of the cross-dressed woman, whereas Beijing opera only brought in actresses quite recently: until the Cultural Revolution dan actors like the great Mei Lanfang played the female roles.

I walk through the concubines' quarters in the Forbidden City; thinking about Mei Lanfang's famous performances as Imperial concubines. There's an exhibition about their lives which is fascinating. At one point, it suggests that all their leisure time, spent reading, writing, painting and embroidering, was "a boring life". This reminds me of something Meijing said in Shanghai one day: that she thought Chinese women were more liberated than Western women, because in China all the women worked, even after they had children (who are looked after by the state or by grand-parents). Liberty, it seems, consists in work here. The concubines had their moments of work too, of course: once in a while the Imperial summons would come, and the lucky lady for the night would be stripped naked, wrapped in yellow cloth and carried across the Forbidden City to be dumped at the feet of her lord and master. Concubines could be as young as 13, and the Emperors would follow the Chinese belief that having sex with young women would give an old man longer life. There's another Imperial tradition followed by Chairman Mao; who, if the new revelations are anything to go by, did very little except have sex with young women for the last decade or so of his life, while the Cultural Revolution went on all around.

That's done it: now this blog will never be available to read in China.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Beijing Dawn

Of the three actors Nick suggested to me, I've met two. The third, Xu Zheng, is in Beijing, where I arrived this morning at 6.30, just as the sun was rising and the mist hanging over the capital. I've already phoned Xu Zheng from Shanghai, but it's difficult to hold phone conversations in a foreign language (at one point he told me, in perfect English "I don't really speak English"). I told him I'd ask a Chinese speaker to phone him when I got here.

This will be Fang Mengxuan ("You can call me Julia" - I'm getting used to this), who is a student here and a friend of Haili and "Jessica" from the Yue opera: having volunteered to be my guide and translator in Beijing, she had a frustrating hour this morning running around outside the vast Beijing station searching for a westerner in a red hat. She's also tracked down some other intriguing Beijing theatre people for me to speak to.

The last of the Yue operas, on Saturday night, was called Peer at Princess Three Times, and was another comic piece about a woman general who can't be looked at by men, and eventually falls in love with a doctor. It's silly but fun: and again different in style from the others I've seen. This time it's much closer to Beijing Opera - lots of twirling swords with tassles on the end. With such flexibility within the form as practised here, it seems odd that people are expressing concern about my preserving its integrity and authenticity: but I suppose the sense of ownership is important. Meijing, who laughs throughout this piece, talks about how interesting it is that all the Yue pieces are about women doing "male" things, like being generals or dressing as boys to become scholars or Prime Ministers. This is a theatre of feminism - and a much more telling one than China's Supergirl.

On Sunday afternoon I meet an actor called Zhou Ye Mang: a fascinating man in his late forties, who has spent a couple of years in Canada, and so speaks good English, but who is also deeply rooted in the history and culture of his home. He's worked with Richard Schechner (in Shanghai), and played Jerry in a Chinese version of Pinter's Betrayal. He's interested in the project, but concerned that he may not speak English well enough. I try to reassure him that the language barrier is part of the point, and we improvise some scenes which start to give him the idea. He acts wonderfully - no demonstrative histrionics at all. This is very promising. He talks about his interest in Western theatre as a way of freeing his creativity (I understand that!), and tells me about the "many tragedies" he knew during the Cultural Revolution. It's a powerful couple of hours - and I hope they will lead somewhere. It's always so hard to tell here: things don't seem to "settle" very easily.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Chinese whispers

I begin to understand why they call the game Chinese whispers. You think you understand what's going on, but actually it's changing subtly all the time.

I've been seeing the Yue opera each night while I've been here, and last night it was one of their cult shows, about a girl who dresses as a man (as so often), becomes Prime Minister and then the target of the Emperor's lust. There's a wonderful scene with the two of them on (Beijing opera style) horses, where you see a man fancying a man, a woman fancying a woman, and a man fancying a woman all at once. And people say there's no gay subtext in Yueju.....

Anyway - before I see this, I get to spend some time with performers. Zhang Ruihong, Huang Hui and Wu Qun: three of the xiaosheng in the company, all of whom I've been impressed with over the last few nights. With Meijing translating, they seem very friendly and open to the ideas (which, of course, have to be explained from the very beginning), and shriek with excitement at being given packets of shortbread from the UK - I think more because I'm showing a bit of Chinese etiquette than because they love biscuits. We even get to work a bit - simple improvisation on opening letters and communicating across language. There's the illustrative tendency there which I suspected I'd see - but also a real sense of different acting styles and some very inspiring creativity. I think this should all work.

Then I take Messrs You and Ho for dinner (more Chinese etiquette - I have to pay for the whole party as the one who invited them - but since a meal costs about the same as a Starbucks coffee here it doesn't hurt much!). And the Chinese whispers start. Meijing and I float Bingbing's idea of the show coming back to Shanghai, and they start to say that this would require some supervision from them, since they are the guardians of the Yue form - fair enough. But when I say that the show will be made next autumn and they can look at it then, and maybe we should think about the 2007 Festival rather than 2006, they start moving round the same ideas again. After about an hour I finally work out that they're asking for a co-production credit, which would then get us access to costumes and music (and co-operation!) as well as a performer. I'm not sure if they work out that I'm amenable to this - and I get more and more worried about the sexual politics of the work as they start to talk about suitability for Chinese audiences and government permissions for collaborations. Back at the hotel, I write myself a tough note in my production notebook that I mustn't let the show be artistically compromised, whatever.

This morning the sun comes out for the first time since I've been here, and I walk over to Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre to meet Nick Yu, who is a playwright and who programmes this theatre complex. After the prudish propaganda I've had from everybody else, this is incredible. SDAC has just produced Patrick Marber's Closer, and next year they are doing Angels in America, precisely because they want to target (wait for it) the gay audience. I ask whether they'll get censored - "No, it will be fine", says Nick: "the only thing that ever got stopped was The Vagina Monologues - they wanted us to change the title." And suddenly I feel back on track, with Nick and the casting lady, Jackie, phoning round male actors who have a good knowledge of English.

My sense is, with the right man from SDAC, and the right actress from SYT, I can make this work on the right lines - and we can probably bring it back to perform at SDAC too (Nick mentions this even before I do). Off to meet the first actor now.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Zhang Ruihong

So much going on that I can't record it all - and some of it probably shouldn't go on the net anyway, because a lot of the meetings are about me learning where I need to show tact in the etiquette of working with Chinese people. I seem to be managing so far.

Much of Wednesday is spent with the Yue opera company: watching them rehearse both at their base and in the theatre. Their technical sessions look as nightmarish as ours, although everybody seems much clamer about it. I squeeze in a meeting with an actor called Jeffrey Zhang and his extraordinary wife Jasmine. It's one of the knock-on effects of the Open Door policy that lots of younger Chinese now have a Western name as well as the Chinese one. They choose it themselves and change it at will: the only girl in the Yue company who speaks English is called Han Lei, "But you can call me Jessica". Jeffrey combines a Robbie Williams-esque modernity with work as a kun opera "National Treasure". Jasmine acts as our interpreter, and is keen for him to come and work in England, but I feel I need somebody with good English for this job. Her English in his body would work fine....

The evening at the Yue opera, where I see for the first time a really brilliant performer. Her name is Zhang Ruihong, and in this piece, Blue Cloak & Red Dress, she plays four different male roles. In a way they are all part of the same role, each older than the one before, each slightly wiser, each a further incarnation of the same soul, learning slowly about how to deal with the world and with women. In the wonderful final scene, which Ruihong performs solo, she is the poet Li Bai, at the end of his life, dressed entirely in white with a long (and totally realistic) beard. She performs a strange, sad dance of death, and departs into a sort of white oblivion. It's very moving, in a way I can't quite comprehend, because it's also deeply Chinese, and carries the weight of so much history and inheritance. This sense of moving through different bodies into eventual nothingness is very resonant for the whole idea of performance, and certainly for cross-gender performance. In the end, I suppose it says, the self is nothing at all, ungendered, unsexed, without race, culture or language - and to accept that is to reach the essential truth.

It's very strange indeed to step out of a performance like this into the crazy streets of modern Shanghai. I walk through the main shopping areas, which are still teeming with life at 10.30pm, and I keep my video camera on as I go, in case this material might feed the production. As I walk, I get approached by at least ten pimps in as many minutes. "Hello - how are you? Want lady?" Given that prostitution is illegal in China, the Western market is clearly still feeding that ancient industry known as Shanghai vice.

Thursday afternoon with the British Council's Arts Manager Zhao Bingbing: a real bundle of energy and ideas, who is very helpful indeed on cultural sensitivity and etiquette, as well as having lots of suggestions for ways we can move the project on. She's coming with me to the Yue performance tonight, and will help me set up meetings with some of the xiaosheng themselves tomorrow. Including, I hope, Zhang Ruihong.....

In the art deco lobby of the famous famous Peace Hotel (where Coward wrote Private Lives and the Gang of Four had their HQ) I buy a little Chinese tea set for Nisha. "Present for wife?" the shop assistant asks me. When I say yes, she tries to get me to buy a jade bracelet "for girlfriend". So that's the assumption Chinese women make about Western men!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Writing this in Shanghai Library on the third morning of my trip. Oh the wonders of the web!

When he knew I was coming out here, Oliver said he thought Shanghai now was probably like New York was in the 1920s. If anything, it's even buzzier, even more capitalist (which is pretty weird in a communist state) and certainly cleaner (which isn't: apart from the odd blob of spittle, there's not a speck of litter to be seen).

It was with some trepidation, and an armful of presents, that I ventured from the Nanyin Hotel (swanky if anonymous, and a snip at the discounted price) to the Yue Opera Company, accompanied by Meijing from the British Council, who'd agreed to be my translator for the morning, even though the National Holiday is happening - which for some reason means that the Britsh Council doesn't work, even though the government-run Yue Opera does.... I needn't have worried. Director You and his Arts Supervisor (which I think means Artistic Director) Mr Hu Xu couldn't have been more positive. We talked over green tea for the entire morning (it takes that long when you're discussing the nature of a devised piece via a translator), and find ourselves going into quite complex areas about cultural relations. I even get bold enough to explain how I think the finances should work, and Mr You says at once that it sounds just right. I'd thought I wouldn't get that far till the fourth meeting over rice wine and crispy duck. Anther myth about China bites the dust. The meeting was followed by a massive lunch, all the same - lots of formal toasting and my first encounter with blue uncooked prawns. But already I fel we've established the connection - there will be a xiaosheng coming from here to work with us.

The company operates from a secluded compound in the heart of the otherwise bustling French Concession. It's like a little oasis of indigenous culture in the thick of the constantly shifting concrete desert. I've just been there again this morning, watching them rehearse. I've chosen the perfect time to be here in many ways - the company is 50 years old this year, and they're doing a festival of performances. There's a different show every night at the Yi Fu theatre. Last night, Meijing and I were their guests at Empress of Hanwen, performed by the younger artists in the company. Wonderful to see the form in the flesh after all the discussions and the DVDs. It is, of course, so much more fascinating in the reality, when you can see the bodies in movement with the music, and watch the entirety of the stage picture. What struck me watching it was that the form is already intercultural, even before I start faffing about with it. Yue dates from 100 years ago, and it seems to me to be a compound of the many influences on Southern China a century ago. There's the kun opera tradition there, of course; but there's also a powerful stream of melodrama (it's above all a theatre of feeling, even of sentiment), and of Western opera. The orchestra is in a pit, not beside the stage, and includes Western cellos and oboes alongside the Chinese instruments: there's even a conductor. This makes the work much more accessible to ears like mine than is the kun opera: it also suggests that the process we're embarking on should be aware of itself as part of an historical continuum of dialogue between forms - something I'd not realised before. The xiaoseng are incredible: the woman who plays the Emperor is totally convincing as a man.

Meijing and I have dinner in a little Hunan restaurant opposite the theatre, with a picture of Mao on the wall. She's 24, so she's grown up in the era after his death, even though she (and this food) both come from his home town. As a result, she learnt her perfect English in school. She's spent a year in London, and so I'm not too worried about cultural sensitivities with her: so we talk about the gender issue more widely than I've done with other Chinese people so far. She says there was a TV show called Supergirl recently, with the public voting for their favourite young girl in a competition, on the lines of Pop Idol. With millions of votes each, and a total craze among the women of the country, the two winners were both very butch....

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Crazy days

Why do the last few days before you go away always disintegrate into total pandemonium? I suppose because you feel you have to sort your whole life out, because nothing can possibly wait for two weeks..... Well, it's past midnight on Saturday, and I'll be up at 5.30 tomorrow to fly to Shanghai, so some things are really going to have to wait. Like the VAT return. But at least I'm doing a last piece of late-night blogging. You have to get your priorities right.

Oh, and I managed to:

do an affidavit of charitable status for Columbia (figures suggesting we're over-dependent on the Arts Council, which I think we know - hopefully Columbia will help us out of that!);

create a CD of our music with carefully designed inlay card to give a unique present to Chinese hosts (and buy boxes of shortbread in case that turns out to be more appropriate);

take the family to Aberystwyth to stay with Nisha's sister while I'm away (a mere 450 mile round trip);

sort out people to share the office and the paperwork to pay Collage Arts;

have a meeting with Geof and Jess at Central about the first stage of the project (we'll be developing the piece with the students in January / February) and how we'll divide expense and credit;

and so on. I'm ready to go!

In the thick of it all, I squeeze in two pieces of African theatre: Who Killed Mr Drum? at the Riverside and The Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican. They couldn't be more different: the South African piece is elegiac, even a little nostalgic for the political and cultural energies of the apartheid era. The Soyinka, although it's fifty years old, feels incredibly current. It's a comedy of changing values (or the failure of change) in post-colonial Nigeria, centring on a woman's sense of herself as a new sort of goddess, because she's been pictured in a magazine. Yes, that current! As so often with Soyinka, I find the piece very disturbing: in spite of the humour and the undeniably infectious buoyancy of Chuck Mike's production with Collective Artistes. As in his serious plays, the colonial, the modern, is only an intervention in a broader cultural history - which is a refreshingly accurate way of looking at it. But the re-assertion of the elder's authority, in the form of what amounts to rape, doesn't feel like a laughing matter to me. I find myself on both sides of the arguments, and not knowing where to place myself. Which is what really good plays do.

The music for both plays is terrific, and they share the same composer: Juwon Ogungbe. I email him about our dormant opera project.

Next time, in Shanghai!