Saturday, October 16, 2010

Packed houses in China

I took the train down to Ningbo on Thursday, to meet up with Roshni Mooneeram and do a workshop for her students on the Nottingham University campus there. This is becoming a bit of an annual event - the last one was a riot. This year Roshni predicted there would be about 30 students there, of whom some would be too shy to take part. As it turned out, there were 150+, all of whom were desparate to act their socks off. Quite a challenge for a 90 minute workshop.

As with the Shanghai workshop last Sunday, I decided to work from images. It was fascinating to see what was in the psyche of these young Chinese people. The idea of shame was very strong - lots of images of an individual being harangued by the mob: the Cultural Revolution lives on.... There was one extraordinary scene in which a Western male student improvised a liaison with a Chinese prostitute: incredibly daring for a young Chinese performer. This girl, who calls herself "Ivy", turns out to be one of Roshni's most capable students, and gets the job of showing me a bit of Ningbo the next morning. She's very articulate - and wants to be a playwright. She's also very aware that it's virtually impossible to make a living that way. Her parents want her to switch to Business Studies. We wonder arond Ningbo's huge and beautiful lake, looking at old women washing clothes in its waters, and carrying them back into ramshackle old houses. They've probably lived here all their lives - and yet seen so much change.

Roshni had booked a bus to bring a student party up to Shanghai to see the show, so I travelled back with them. It was lovely to get chance to have long chat with Roshni - about the vagaries of working with China, about Dev Virahsawmy's newer plays, and about her developing critical ideas about cosmopolitanism. A much more alive and interesting approch than post-colonialism, which is, as she says, "a bit tired" as a theory now.

The show is entering its final weekend in Shanghai, and is selling out. Not that this means it's full - at least until half an hour into the show, when the last of the audience has finally arrived. I'm learning to accept the constant coming and going, the glow of the mobile phones, the chattering and the general lack of reverence. In fact, last night I became very aware of the fact that they weren't just talking - they were participating very actively in the performance, explaining to one another what was going on, or getting excited about images and ideas. What's more, the audience is going on a real journey with the play. By the second half, there is a palpable calm in the room, and an intensity of concentration and absorption which is all the more telling for being so uncharacteristic.

All of which is very gratifying.

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