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.

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