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....

No comments: