‘It’s about a China you can imagine without ever going there.
But it’s also about an Edinburgh you can imagine without ever going there. It’s about the way people connect in their imaginations.” So Rona Munro, prolific Scots playwright and screenwriter, describes Pandas, her new play for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.
The drama – which is being promoted as a “romantic comedy-thriller” – is a tale of three love affairs and the criminality surrounding some stolen Chinese rugs. In particular, Munro was inspired by two seemingly unrelated subjects, namely the burgeoning rise of China as a global superpower and the growth in internet dating.
“I was desperate to write a play about China,” she explains. “It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. Everyone’s saying that it’s going to become the dominant nation on the planet in the near future. Then there’s its history and its legends. It’s just this huge, mysterious country that really occupied my imagination.”
As is often the case with imagination, however, Munro – who also has a play about the Russian space programme, Little Eagles, opening on April 16 at the Hampstead Theatre in London in a Royal Shakespeare Company production – found that her train of thought didn’t stop at the destination she originally envisaged. “Partly because I never got the opportunity to go to China, and partly because I created characters who took me in surprising directions, instead of being a big play about China, it became a little love story. It’s one of those plays which seems to have almost dreamed itself.”
When we meet two of those characters – a Chinese woman called Lin Han and a Chinese entrepreneur called Jie-Hui – they have only just met. They feel like they know each other, however, having exchanged 536 messages and 72 pictures via email. The romance between Lin Han and Jie-Hui becomes embroiled in some serious goings-on in the latter’s company, including the shooting of his business partner. Like anyone who has written a play which is defined, partly at least, as a thriller, Munro is understandably reticent about giving away key aspects of the plot.
What she will say, however, is that she found it “nerve-wracking” to write a play about a culture which is so distinct from her own. “You think, ‘Who the hell am I to write about someone from a completely different culture and background?’ I’m afraid what I decided to do was just to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘OK, I’m just going to throw myself on the mercy of the Chinese actors and tell them that I may have got some of this horribly wrong.’”
In the end, the writer has been greatly encouraged by the supportive comments of the Chinese actors Crystal Yu (who featured in the recent film Shanghai, with Li Gong and John Cusack, and has a starring role in Madonna’s advert for H&M) and Siu Hun Li (who is from Edinburgh). “Either they’re being really nice to me,” Munro says, “or the gamble’s worked.”
If the writing of Pandas seems like a gamble, try Oranges And Sunshine, the new movie from Jim Loach (son of stellar British filmmaker Ken Loach), for which Munro has written the screenplay. The film – which stars Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham – was inspired by a book by Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who uncovered the scandal of the forced migration of 130,000 British children in care, mainly to Australia. Many were told the lie that their parents were dead. Promised “oranges and sunshine” on the other side of the world, they often faced hard labour and abuse.
Munro, who wrote the screenplay for Ken Loach’s 1994 movie Ladybird Ladybird, admits to having been a little wary of the offer to write for Jim Loach’s film. “Initially I had a slight resistance. I do tend to get put in a box as a writer of ‘the harrowing true story of … ’. Part of me was thinking, ‘You should consider yourself bloody lucky to be writing a film’, but the other part of me was saying, ‘but I want to write a different kind of film.”
She was won over, however, by “a combination of reading the book – absorbing how large this issue had been and how many people it had affected – and getting to know Jim”.
Loach Jnr is, she says, very much his own film director, with his own style. He does, however, have some of the best traits of his father. “He is very collaborative, which is very rare in film and telly. Ken’s very like that, too. Jim also has great certainty.”
Ultimately, Munro believes that Loach’s directing, and the acting of a superb cast, have managed to strike the right balance between the agonies of the subject matter and the audience’s ability to endure the emotional pain being portrayed in the screen. “My son, who’s 20, and a couple of his friends came to see it, and what they said was that they had sat down thinking, “This is going to be difficult”, but, a few minutes in they realised it was going to be really watchable. What I hope we’ve pulled off is to make a difficult subject bearable to watch without blunting its impact.”
Pandas is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 19-May 7. Oranges And Sunshine is in cinemas now.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 3 2011
© Mark Brown