Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mr. President

Now I know how Nixon felt.

At 9.30 this morning, Director You (my Zhou Enlai for the day) appears in the hotel lobby with a huge car, in which we are driven across town. No translator, so we just keep smiling at one another politely and uncomprehendingly. Just after 10, we are in the very fast lift of the Yihai Building, being rocketed up to the 24th floor, where we are met by Forrina Chen (playing Nancy Tang for the day). I met Forrina in Hong Kong back in March: she's in the "International Liaison Department" of the China Shanghai International Arts Festival. And (thank god) is perfectly bi-lingual.

Forrina shows us into a vast meeting room, around the walls of which are huge armchairs, into which we sink. Mine is just to the right of the room's centre. There's a table in the very centre of the wall, which has a big pot-plant on it. Director You is seated to my right, and Forrina takes a chair to the left, leaving the centre-left space for the President. Then Mr Chen Sheng Lai arrives. He says "Hello" and I say "Ni hua", and from then on we're dependent on Forrina. It's just as well, because we both sink quite deeply into the chairs, and so we can't really look at each other, but end up playing hide and seek with our eyes around the pot plant. Or stare into the empty space in the middle of the room. It all feels just like the scene in Mao's library from Nixon in China.... So much so that even the photographer appears, and we all rise to our feet and stand in an awkward smiling line to mark the momentous intercultural encounter.

Luckily, what is actually being said at the meeting is all rather useful. Mr Chen likes the idea of a cross-cultural collaboration in theatre - they've only done this with music before - and the presence of Zhang Ruihong makes it a sure seller. He's intrigued about the ways we handle language in the production, and he like the thought of a piece set in contemporary Shanghai with Western performers, which also draws off the traditional culture here. He asks some astute questions about why we wanted to work with Yueju: I give quite a complicated answer about gender, identity and the changing world - I have no way of telling how Forrina translates this, but both President Chen and Director You nod sagely, so it must have been convincing on some level. I decide that I'd better take the opportunity to pre-empt any possible difficulties later on, and tell them that I've taken on board Mr Ke Yasha's recommendations about ways of making the piece more "suitable for a Chinese audience" - which means dealing with sexual and political content in a subtle way. More sagely nodding. I'm beginning to think this might just happen....

DVDs are taken, and I suppose much depends on these. I hope they can play them more readily than I could on the laptop yesterday.... Then Mr Chen give me a copy of the Festival programme for this year. It's a 200 page coffee-table book, bound in hard covers, with every page in full colour. And the list of performances is extraordinary. This explains the Presidential suite - it's the largest Festival in China, and one of the largest in the world. And here are we being backed by the Yue Opera Company, one of their main collaborators, to be a part of it.

I only hope they like that DVD.....

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