Chinese classics meet a Midsummer Night’s Dream…

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2012

Performing China on the Global Stage: a research project coordinated by Dr Li Ruru, University of Leeds

I recently took part in the post-graduate element of the Performing China on the Global Stage project.  This  involved participation in a preparatory workshop with the two student troupes performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, attendance at their performances (The Sun is Not for Us by stage@leeds touring of Leeds University and I Am a Moon by Yesoo of Nanjing University), and a performance analysis and discussion at the Intercultural Performance seminar that ended the week. So, five of us researchers were forced, yes, forced to stay in central Edinburgh during the world-famous Fringe Festival and watch shows! It was torture – magnificent torture!

(c) stage@leeds touring

The Sun Is Not for Us

Golden haired girls dressed in creams and whites argue with tall English boys about their lives and their loves. The girls are sometimes desperate, sometimes stoic, sometimes strong, one time mad. The boys are by turn arrogant, angry or simply careless. Accent indicates class – here is a servant girl,Yorkshire born and bred, there a young master, there the mistress of the house. Perhaps we are in an Edwardian costume drama, except the costumes are minimalist, without place or time.  But then there are the names: Plum, Flower, Ping and, also, the disturbing black and white images projected onto the screen of toes broken and twisted under.The University of Leeds students’ The Sun is Not for Us  was an intercultural appropriation of the women’s stories from four of Cao Yu’s major plays.  Cao Yu was one of China’s founding modern playwrights.  This reworking from multiple sources defamiliarised these early 20C works by excerpting thematic elements about the ‘binding’ of women (physically, emotionally and through family ties) and, in the process, creating a brand new play in which their parallel stories combine to make a powerful indictment of patriarchal systems.  It defamiliarised these canonical Chinese plays further through the largely colourblind casting, which, if it hadn’t been for the broken, bound feet at the opening, and the culturally specific names, could have opened up the play to be located in any pre-feminist society.

I have opened with this performance description because this ‘doubleness’ of seeing, hearing and experiencing summed up the experience of the week’s project for me.

The workshop and seminar (Confucius Institute)

From the workshop at the beginning of the week with the two casts and the directors leading us in improvisational experiments, to the co-authored paper we delivered at the Friday’s seminar, which combined the ideas of six researchers from five countries and several disciplines, we were testing out in practice how intercultural and cross-cultural performance inhabits new liminal creative spaces. During the first workshop, we were divided into groups and asked to devise a short play around a short story – either the traditional Chinese myth of Hou Yi and Chang’E, the Moon Goddess, or the tale of the Farmer and the Pig from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. As an educator, I often find that cultural stereotypes of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ students are still deeply ingrained in the minds of many university lecturers, who often perceive the Eastern students as passive learners in contrast to their supposedly innovative Western counterparts.  So, I had to mentally applaud the young Leeds student who observed that, whereas all the British groups had devised short plays tightly linked to their source material, every Chinese group had played much more freely with their prompt text, either choosing just one element of the plot to focus on, or inventing additional characters. Those of us who were in multi-cultural groups were challenged to communicate bilingually, but also to explore and combine different conceptions and interpretations for performance. However, we also learnt that we needed to compromise, drawing on the strongest elements, and condensing the performance in terms of language and image to something that all participants could grasp and express.  For example, because we performed bilingually despite some of us having much more limited language skills, we pared the dialogue right down.  Likewise, not having time to explain the concept of the good and bad angels in Dr Faustus or to understand what lay behind a Chinese director’s idea of the main character, a pig, dividing into five pigs before attacking his owner, we took the essence from each idea and our pig divided into two as he recited bits of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy!

(c) yesoo

I am the Moon

The activities and discussion that grew out of the workshop in turn informed our later viewing of the plays.  For example, my ear was attuned to listening out for multiple languages in Nanjing Yesoo’s I am a Moon and thinking about what these different languages signified, because a cast member had commented that the play had undergone several intercultural and structural transformations on it’s journey to the Edinburgh Fringe. Originally written in English by a native Chinese speaker for an American audience, it had then been translated back into Mandarin for a Chinese audience.  When a significantly smaller cast brought it here, they didn’t only cut the dialogue, but they transformed it.  Planning at first to deliver the play in Mandarin and English, they felt this opened the door to play with other languages. As a cast member spoke Cantonese, one of the characters spoke this.  Another character even spoke a made up language, gibberish. In our paper, we explored how these linguistic choices then foregrounded certain thematic ideas. Having each character speak a different language, sometimes to each other, underlined ideas about how impossible it is for two individuals to fully communicate and also heightened the sense of alienation in the production.  Furthermore, the cutting of characters resulted in a layering of monologues, giving the play a filmic quality, linking it generally to ‘city’ films, but also perhaps more specifically to those films by directors such as Wong Kar Wai about exile and existential loneliness.

The Shakespeare Connection

Another parallel was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the Leeds students had described how they had looked for cultural equivalents as a way into their Chinese text.  Excerpted from its original play, his character rejecting the demands of a demanding young servant girl became, in his mind, Demetrius and Helena.  Once I had seen this parallel it spilled over into I am the Moon, even though in this case it did not lie behind the conception of the piece. Nonetheless, its characters, a semi-naked young Asian man masturbating alone in a block of flats, a plump but fiercely intelligent girl talking to herself in a supermarket about the same Asian man she could see through his curtainless windows, a gay Canto-Pop star yearning for his lover, a drunken businessman remembering how he had first kissed his wife, all had equivalents among the lovers lost in the woods.  And, well, if you looked for a metaphor, they had entered that nightmare space of the urban jungle and were journeying dangerously into their subconsciousnesses… Played by a woman as a man (her head cleverly photoshopped onto a man’s body for the large poster next to the bus-stop where she delivered a soliloquy!), this gay Canto-Pop star, by the way, strongly evoked Leslie Cheung in his Passion Tour period. (I adore Leslie Cheung…)

Next Post

Here is an extremely interesting summing up of the Globe to Globe Festival by my friend Duncan (known in the Twitter world as @shaksper) – we met at a Globe to Globe event, It is the East! My comment is added below.

Margate Sands

The Globe to Globe festival lasted six weeks and comprised thirty-seven Shakespeare productions, each in a different language. Theatre companies from around the world presented a wide variety of interpretations of Shakespeare in a range of theatrical styles.

The individual characteristics of these productions proved endlessly fascinating. But some common features emerged from this disparate collection of drama.

1. Women

Productions from a wide variety of cultures took characters written as male outsiders and recast them as female tricksters.

The Māori Troilus and Cressida had a female Thersites. Her tied-back hair and thin angular features were complemented by a shrill nasal voice that she used aggressively to mock everyone around her.

In the Hindi Twelfth Night the often dour figure of Feste became a sprightly young female whose mockery had none of the sad emptiness that comes to a peak in Feste’s concluding song.

The clownish Bottom became an old…

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Hamlet in Krakow

(This short post will be updated at a later date)

My friend Sonia Front, of the University of Silesia, and I will visit Krakow today, to go to the Teatre Stary, where Andrej Wajde put on a production of Hamlet in 1989.  Aneta Glowacka tells me that this is an important production in thinking about Klata’s H.  I’ve just been looking on-line and found this interview with Wajde, which among other things, explains why European theatre seems so comfortable with reassigning gender roles :

Wadje’s official website translates into English

Otherwise, it’s Google Translate to get the gist… Online Polish resources include:,Wajda-postawi-40-Hamletow-na-jednej-scenie,szczegoly.html,,,,wajda_andrzej,haslo.html

We went to the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) but got there too late – it has an amazing looking interactive museum (which houses Wajde’s Old Hamlet’s helmut).  The theatre appeared to be putting on works by Klata (I believe he is to be the new artistic director) and later this week, by another director, Heiner Muller’s Titus Andronicus.

The reason we were so late, by the way, was because we went to Schindler’s Factory first. Now a museum about Schindler’s list, including exhibits about some of the survivors, about the ghetto and the concentration camp, and about the Jewish and the Polish Resistance, it also recorded how important a role theatre played during this period. The Stary Teatr was appropriated by the Germans as part of their propoganda machine, but underground theatres also flourished. A young man called Karol had acting aspirations but later went to seminary instead.  He became Pope John Paul II. Young Jews such as Joseph Bau, whose concentration camp wedding features in Spielberg’s film, survived in part because of their creative talents.

Krakow is only an hour away from where I’m staying in Katowice, so I will pop back early next week – when the museum is open.

Chinese Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Two Dogs (c) Beijing Young Dramatists Association

Two Dogs (c) Beijing Young Dramatists Association

Check out the following Chinese productions at the Edinburgh Fringe:

The Sun is Not for Us performed by stage@leeds touring and directed/produced by David Jiang and Li Ruru.  An intercultural adaptation of Cao Yu’s classic plays by a group of British students transforms early 20th Century Chinese tragedy into a feminist revisioning about the fate of women trapped in the patriarchal system.  Despite the initial images of footbinding, the casting and direction finds parallels with women’s lives in early twentieth century Britain, and in places echoes Shakespeare’s plays. At theSpace on North Bridge, August 10-11, 16.10 (1 hr).

I am a Moon performed by Yesoo Company, Nanjing University. An often funny if bittersweet reflection on Japanese porn, supermarkets, strangers in lifts, and kissing in glasses by four lonely young Chinese urbanites. At theSpace on North Bridge, August 9, 16.10 (1 hr).

Two Dogs performed by Beijing Young Dramatist Association. A hilarious double-act, somewhere between Chinese cross-talk, Samuel Beckett and Morcombe and Wise. ‘Two dog brothers leave their home seeking their dreams’. At Sweet Grassmarket, Aug 8-17, 11.40 (1 hr).