Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Back to China with Nixon

Fred Frumberg and I are co-directing the revival of Nixon in China at ENO. It's very helpful, in this year of Chinese work, to go back to one of the pieces that got me fired up about the culture and the politics in the first place. This is now the third time I've been involved with this opera: and each time we do it, it seems more relevant to the current situation. Nixon's trip was the harbinger of the Open Door policy which Deng Xiaoping inaugurated in 1978, and which I saw so much evidence of in the rampant commercialism of Shanghai. Looking at the material again, I'm especially struck by the way Alice Goodman (the librettist) makes Mao a prophet of what will happen in China after his death; foreseeing the arrival of the "new missionaries" who "crucify us on a cross of usury", and of the "organised oblivion" which is contemporary politics. The opera feels like a plea for the return of idealism; an end to the culture of management.

Fred's an interesting bloke. For years he was Peter Sellars' regular assistant, and knows the staging of the opera backwards. Nowadays he works in Cambodia, with traditional temple dancers, trying to revitalize the old forms that were destroyed under the Khymer Rouge. The other day, he spoke at length about how the period of Pol Pot still hangs over the country; how everybody lost people who were close to them; how people still won't go into the tourist museums of the killing fields, because they are sure they will see a photo of somebody they loved. This is like the Cutural Revolution - we still don't know how many died in this movement, which happened in our own lifetimes.

Our way of working has evolved over the first couple of weeks of rehearsals. Fred explains the staging to the singers in enormous detail. I talk about the history, the emotions, the poetry and the energy. It's a strange approach: I normally feel that staging should arise naturally out of a performer's impulse, but I have to accept that I'm working on a revival of somebody else's original production, and that that original director (Peter) does dictate staging in a very ordered and specific way. I'm also aware that this staging is quite brilliant, and if we can get the cast to inhabit it fully, then the results will be quite stunning. Already there are scenes of enormous power, especially the ballet of The Red Detachment of Women, which turns into the enactment of the Cultural Revolution, with Nixon, Pat and Kissinger somehow drawn in.

Several trips to the theatre during these first couple of weeks rehearsal. Lydia baksh, who was Linda in Orientations first time round, was terrific in David Zoob's The Dead Fiddler at the New End. Nice to see a good audience for fringe work: that theatre has made real links with the Jewish community in North London. David's experimenting with a marriage of narrative and Klesmer. At times the show feels a bit close to its origins as a short story, but it's brave and idiosyncratic work.

Deborah, Olly and I go to Riverside to see The Exonerated. The space has been turned through 90 degrees from its usual, and feels bigger in the auditorium but smaller on stage as a result. We'll need it to go back. The play is simplicity itself: just a row of actors speaking into microphones, reading the testimonies of people who had been on death row, and then were freed. The format has allowed them to change from one starry cast to another: we saw Sam West, who was very understated and very moving.

Stephen King emails to say HSBC won't be sponsoring us: apparently there's been a rush of China-related requests since the Olympics. Nick Williams phones from the Arts Council to ask for a bit of detail. And I meet Valerie Chang to talk about audience development with the Chinese community.

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