Wednesday, July 08, 2009

China Witness

I've just finished reading Xinran's amazing book China Witness. Xinran was very helpful to us during Dis-Orientations, writing pieces for the programme and the website, as well as doing a post-show discussion, and I very much hope we'll be able to involve her in the next stage of the Trilogy too (she's already offered her services if she's around!).

When I met her in September 2006, Xinran had just got back from China, where she had been making the journey and conducting the interviews that eventually became China Witness. It's an incredibly important work of oral history. As much as anything, because so many records were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and so much of the official line is politicised fiction, it is only by direct engagement with older people who lived through the huge changes of China's last century that we have any chance of understanding that history. The work she's undertaken is made all the more urgent by the fact that time and again the interviewees themselves doubt its validity. They keep asking why she wants to talk about the past. Their own children and grandchildren have no interest in history, and certainly don't want to know about their ancestors poverty and struggles. To them, it would seem, all that matters is the immediate gratification of the present economic moment.

Reading these interviews, which are presented in the book almost like dramatic dialogues between Xinran and her subjects, I started to think about the way in which we use testimony in the creation of theatre. There are people who are making plays which are pure testimony - like Talking to Terrorists, for example. In our work, the testimony gets buried in the layering of fiction and intervention - and I tend to prefer this approach in theory as well as in practice. It seems to me that something is not necessarily more telling in the theatre just because a "real person" said it. Art is about refining what "real people" say and do - as Brecht said, "If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors".

Even so, testimony is crucial to our work on the Trilogy. Without the interviews we did through the Naz project, or Pritham's conversations with the hijras, it would have been impossible to construct Orientations and to feel that it had any integrity. My own experiences in China, and Haili, Ruihong and Ieng Un's personal experiences and family histories, fed into Dis-Orientations, just as I'm sure the testimonies of our performers and their contacts will continue to inform the growth of the third play.

When you're dealing with huge traumatic events, testimony becomes very important, but also very problematic. In the Trilogy, we look at the Cultural Revolution, the tsunami and the Szechuan earthquake. In each case, we've drawn off an element of testimony in our research, and yet that testimony is necessarily incomplete, because it is always the testimony of the survivor, and not the victims themselves. Moreover, because it is testimony to trauma, it is not factual - it is a collection of fragments, many of which are deeply emotional responses. But that is how we perceive the world. The demand of the survivor to be heard, to tell their story, becomes a sort of intervention in the historical process, rather than a record of the historical process. That's why it's more theatrical than objectively historical. And perhaps this allows an intimacy and a sort of reckoning with the audience. I hope so.

I certainly felt something of that when I was reading China Witness. Click here for a video of Xinran talking about it.

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