Review feature: Beijing showcase

Chekhov and Cherries in China

Mark Brown discovers the diversity of theatrical performances being staged in the Chinese capital

Turn off any main street in downtown Beijing and wander along one of the many hutongs (alleyways) that criss-cross the city and you are bound to encounter some of the contradictions that characterise modern day China. The Dong Mian Hua Hutong is a particularly interesting case in point.

I was visiting the hutong as a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC); the recent world congress of which was hosted by China’s Central Academy of Drama. The alleyway is home to the older of the Academy’s two campuses.
A few blocks down from the campus is the Penghao Theatre (slogan: “theatre without borders”), an independent playhouse which, I hear, is tolerated by the government, but receives regular visits from the police. Just yards down from that is a trendy bar with a picture of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, which boasts live music.

In this one alleyway one can encounter prestigious, state-funded art, censorship, and a thirst for greater cultural openness. In a nominally “Communist” country in which big business (from Starbucks to Hyundai) is free to operate, as long as it plays by the Chinese government’s rules (facebook and other social networks are blocked and the internet is widely censored), the Dong Mian Hua Hutong seems like Beijing in microcosm.

To attend the IATC congress, and, with it, a diverse showcase of the theatre being staged in Beijing, was to taste the city beyond the infamous air pollution and the remarkable tourist attractions of the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China (which is easily reachable from the city on a day trip). It is greatly to the credit of our hosts at the Central Academy and the IATC China section that we, delegates from around the world, were offered a very diverse programme of live theatre.

In a busy schedule, Michael Thalheimer’s acclaimed production of Medea for the Schauspiel Frankfurt, staged at the National Theatre of China, was joined by a high-energy, beautifully-costumed student performance of Peking opera, played on the extremely impressive new campus of the Central Academy. There was also contemporary dance, in the shape of the metaphorical piece Breath, at the Penghao Theatre, and a lavish western opera, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with a mixed Chinese and European cast, performed in the vast opera house of the extraordinary titanium and glass home of the National Centre for Performing Arts (known locally, with immense understatement, as “the egg”).

The Cherry Orchard, dir: Vladimir Petrov. Photo: Li Bing
The Cherry Orchard, dir: Vladimir Petrov. Photo: Li Bing

As so often with much-hyped European productions, Thalheimer’s bleak, minimalist piece never quite justifies its reputation. Nevertheless, Constanze Becker, playing the lead on a symbolic and dramatically effective ledge, gives an often penetrating performance as Medea.

Elsewhere, the student Peking opera (which was replete with acrobatics) appeared a little rough to those who were familiar with the form. However, to a newcomer, such as myself, it was a treat to experience this great Chinese dramatic art in its various aspects, ranging from live, classical music, played on traditional instruments, to the extraordinarily expressive face paintings and physical gestures of the young performers.

However, the most impressive individual performance of the week came from acclaimed Chinese tenor Shi Yijie, who stole the show in Italian director Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Don Pasquale. Humorous, light of foot and reaching his superb voice across the 2,400-seater auditorium with apparent ease, his Ernesto was the highlight of an otherwise conventional production, to which little was added by a bemusing Marx Brothers theme.

If neither Thalheimer nor Maestrini impressed particularly, Russian director Vladimir Petrov has created a show of considerable visual beauty with his production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the Central Academy. Played by a cast of professional Chinese actors, all of whom teach at the Academy, it has a sparse, Brechtian, “narrative realist” quality.

That is to say, its design employs realism only where it is required by the story (such as in the fine period costumes). Otherwise, the stage is bare, save for a huge, beautifully-employed white sheet (onto which are occasionally projected splendid photographs of Chekhov) and a number of bulging sacks (which, we discover latterly, are filled with cherries).

Petrov lets himself, and his production, down with a horribly incongruous use of music, but the combination of a strong ensemble and some lovely design made his Cherry Orchard a highlight of my week in Beijing.

All of which leads me to an observation on Scottish theatre. In a year in which I have seen work by Thomas Ostermeier in France, Béla Pintér in Hungary, and Michael Thalheimer in China, it is hugely encouraging to be able to say that the best in Scottish theatre (particularly Dominic Hill’s work at the Citizens Theatre) more than holds its own when compared with the work of Europe’s leading theatrical auteurs.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 26, 2014

© Mark Brown

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