Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Which Way China?

Serge Soric and Song Ru Hui in Consumed
The tour of Consumed came to an end at Chickenshed, our local theatre.  Big experiment for them, as they've not received shows before - and lovely to see that it was such a success there.  One of the reasons we got such good audiences was that Lucy and her team had been working with the Youth Theatre there on the Intercult project - so there was already a lot of engagement with the play's areas of concern.  And we were able to to show the young people's work as part of the Which Way China? day we presented on the Saturday, as a sort of symposium around the production.

Last week, I went back to Leeds University, for another symposium, this one around Staging China, with lots of scholars and theatre-makers from China and across the world.  So I've been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the wider issues around the play.  Nice to do this at the end of a project - it reminds you of what the piece is actually about and why it matters to do it.

Consumed is about a globalised, technologically inter-connected world.  It is also very much about difference within that world, and the fact that China remains emphatically, powerfully distinct from the West in cultural terms.  That difference, as the conversations of the last couple of weeks have made clear, is not confined to language or culture in its narrow sense.  It runs through the whole way of thinking and being.  So people who imagine that China's rapid change is an evolutionary process taking the nation towards a Western model of liberal democracy are profoundly mistaken.  China will go her own way - and our task is to find how to live with that.  The intercultural theatre we are making with Chinese artists is a cultural experiment around a much larger political question - how do we, as distinct cultures, jointly inhabit this connected, globalised space?  How do we live with difference?

The Leeds conference threw some of the differences into very sharp relief.  On the first day, there were two acting workshops - one with ZoĆ« Waterman, who was Greg Doran's assistant on the RSC's Orphan of Zhao, the other with Tian Qinxin, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of China.  The RSC workshop was, I suspect, intended by the organisers to be about the approach that had been taken to The Orphan of Zhao - after all, the conference was about Staging China.  In fact, it was about the RSC's approach to Shakespearean text, with very little acknowledgment that many people in the room spoke very little English, or (perhaps more interestingly) viewed English as a second language, and English culture from the outside.  I had a lot of fund playing Benedick in Much Ado, but, as so often with the UK theatre establishment, I felt the real questions were simply being avoided.

Tian Qinxin was extraordinary.  She is a small, soft-spoken woman, who habitually dresses in an old-fashioned Chinese scholar's robe, and little round glasses.  Her workshop consisted largely of provoking us to be expressive in a whole range of different ways.  "Be an apple.  Express it through your eyes.  Can your partner tell whether you are a red apple or a green apple?"  "Look through the seats.  See through the walls.  See outside.  You must really look - not pretend to look".  "He was good.  Everybody else was very bad."  The model of "director as master", which is very prevalent in Chinese theatre, and which I recall from Zhang Ruihong, was clearly there.  But so was a great humour, and a real passion to teach what she was aware was a culturally specific approach.  The RSC workshop began by disclaiming that it was Western.  It was.

So often the West assumes that its way is "universal", and that it is the yardstick by which other cultures must be measured.  That is what we have to move beyond.  There is no universal and there is no yardstick.  There is simply flux.