Thursday, August 24, 2006

Zhang Ruihong

Haili and I collected Zhang Ruihong from Heathrow on Sunday afternoon. To be honest, until she finally stepped out of the Arrivals door, I'd still had a nagging doubt as to whether we'd finally manage it. But we did. And now we're doing something that nobody's ever done before.

Ruihong is smaller than I remember her from Shanghai, and looks even younger than she did then. I know from doing the work permit application that we were born in the same year, but she looks about 25. We communicate through translation - William and Ieng Un both speak Mandarin, and Haili can translate simultaneously, which is incredible though sometimes a bit daunting. Once or twice I've had to stop her, so that I can think as I speak, or so that I can watch Ruihong's face and gestures as she speaks, and only get the rationality of language after the emotion in her response.

Emotional response is the key to her work. From the very first day she brings a new theatrical language onto the stage. It's not just Yueju, though of course this is her rich tradition, and she's very proficient in it. It's also an ability to work through the vocabulary of the form in a dialogue with other artists. We are able to create through the coincidence of Yue music or movement with English words, or projected images, or other music, or even naturalism - and each of these forms becomes richer and newer through the dialogue. Because Ruihong is such a sensitive artist, and her tradition is so mythic and so "unreal" (or real in a Platonic sense), it gives a holiness to the work - even to scenes which would otherwise seem squalid. Like Yeats: "Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement".

The other enriching thing is the experience of Chinese history which Ruihong and the others bring to us. Today we were working on the Cultural Revolution (and making the play far less of a history lesson, far more of an emotional journey). Ruihong told us her childhood memory of hiding under a table while the beatings were going on. She remembers the people with placards round their necks, and visiting her father (himself a theatre director) in a labour camp. It suddenly makes us all feel more responsible to this work, to these stories. Because these things happened. To someone in the room.

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