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!

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