Monday, February 18, 2013

The amazing Song Ru Hui

Song Ru Hui.  Photo: Richard Davenport
I've known, and worked with Song Ru Hui since 2009, when we started the development process for Re-Orientations in Shanghai.  That makes this period of rehearsal for Consumed the fifth block of work we've done together in four years.  It's a fascinating and evolving creative collaboration, made all the more intriguing and challenging by the fact that we don't speak the same language.

Consumed was Hui's idea.  She'd been excited and stimulated by the devising process around Re-Orientations, and wanted the opportunity to develop a new piece with a smaller cast, working on similar lines but with more depth for specific characters.  We've ended up with a three-hander: Hui and two men.

The workshop process in Shanghai last year was actually quite complex for Hui.  Her training and method as a performer is very Stanislavskian - she needs to know everything about a character before she can play her.  That's almost diametrically opposed to my devising approach - where we create scenes, events, happenings - and slowly hang them together until a storyline emerges.  For me, the character is the person who does those things.  The psychology emerges from the events, rather than being there to motivate them.

But the dramaturgical period since the workshop has allowed a strong story to emerge, with three clear characters, each of whom has a very carefully worked out journey.  Our rehearsals over the last few weeks have been about charting that, in a way far closer to Hui's accustomed approach.  And the results are very remarkable.

Serge Soric and I were discussing her acting on the train after rehearsals last week.  It's not just a Stanislavskian, absorbed performance.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, it's a transcendent happening.  I've no idea whether Hui is a religious or spiritual person in any way - although I do feel that she emerges from a heritage of Buddhist culture which empowers the internal life.  It seems to me that acting, for her, is not a craft or a discipline so much as a spiritual practice, a way of being.  More than any actor I have ever worked with, she transforms on stage, becoming more than herself. She takes her art to another dimension, and so transforms the space around her. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rehearsing China - and the French Revolution

Zhou Enlai
When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, he famously replied that it was too early to say.  A scholarly figure, like the Platonic philosopher king Mao, Zhou watched history with the same sharp eye he brought to bear on the present.  It informed and directed his view of future policy.

The same, it would seem, is true of his successors in what, elsewhere in the world, has become an altogether less studious age: one which tends to ignore history, or at best to prostitute it to patriotic indoctrination in the style of Michael Gove.  In China, however, John Gray reports in this weekend's Guardian that the new leadership around Xie Jinping have been making an avid study of Alexis de Tocqueville's book on the origins of the French Revolution: L'Ancien RĂ©gime.  Well they might.  Tocqueville pointed out that the French Revolution exemplified an important pattern in world history: namely that revolutions tend to occur not in times of despair, but when things are actually "getting better" in terms of economic growth, and particularly when they are getting better for one section of society more rapidly than for others.  Judged by these criteria, contemporary China, with its meteoric growth and ever-widening inequalities, would seem to be ripe for a revolution emerging from the peasantry.  This insecurity in the leadership, coupled with their enormous power, makes sense of much they are doing in terms of policy.

I have argued before in this blog that the globalisation of economics does not imply any inevitable liberalisation or westernisation of Chinese society.  Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008 may have pushed things in precisely the opposite direction.   Following the collapse of the Western banks, China no longer felt that the West was the model with which it had to catch up.  Rather, China could go it alone, creating a new model of state-sponsored capitalism.  This, to my mind, serves to underline the increasing emphasis on the distinct nature of Chinese culture which the regime is keen to promulgate both to its own people and overseas.

And Chinese culture is indeed distinct.  During this first week of rehearsals for Consumed, I have been reminded time and again that the Chinese colleagues we are so lucky as to have with us do not think about this art of theatre in quite the way we do.  In terms of making exciting intercultural performance, that is, of course, a huge advantage.  It would be very dull if cross-cultural work simply blanded everybody out, a cultural equivalent of global mass-production.  This week has seen us moving the Chinese and Western elements in our play further away from one another, looking deliberately for the differences, and so for the drama.  The fact that it's all expressed through the web, Skype, video and the other accoutrements of a global economy makes it all the more potent.  These forms which seem to bring us closer are in fact the media that most clearly expose our fundamental difference.

Week 2 starts tomorrow.  I can hardly wait.