(The Chinese version was translated by Ms. YOU Xing 游行）
A Monday evening. The balmy September breeze ushers the spectators into the hall of the Shanghai Theatre Academy （上海戏剧学院）, where clusters of students and quite a few senior citizens file past a row of flashy flower baskets which indicate that this evening is meant to be special. The theatre hums to life as spectators flock in, look for their seats, chat loudly, play with their mobile 'phones, change seats and answer calls.
The play: "Sighs" (情叹qingtan) adapted from the traditional Sichuan repertoire, directed and performed by TIAN Mansha (田蔓莎), with a group of six Sichuan theatre musicians. The spectator cannot but be curious, as even the layman senses how difficult it must be to give contemporary relevance to a piece of regional repertoire from one Chinese province, with its strict musical rules and abundance of literary references which are understood by a Chinese public, but which usually fly over the heads of foreign spectators. For the latter, the translation screens on both sides of the stage provided a welcome degree of comfort.
Naturally, the performance was not aimed at foreigners. But the reactions I had as a spectator led me to think about the special characteristics of Chinese plays, and to wonder if, beyond the performing arts, Chinese culture in general is accessible to the foreigner.
I don't intend to go through the play, because that is far better taken care of by professional theatre critics, or Chinese literati. The performance by Ms. TIAN conveyed the sad yearning of the young wife whose husband has left for high public office in the capital, but also her youthful liveliness which, in a moment, can turn into melancholy. Although never mentioned by name, the decade of acute political turmoil from 1966 onwards (the so-called "cultural revolution", in which culture was used as a pretext) occupies the latter half of the play, Ms. TIAN impersonating with vivid reality, but also with delicacy, the sense of loneliness and utter loss of the artist-turned-cleaner, who for a brief episode remembers the bliss of dance, the flight of the spirit, before being brutally brought back to her senses by a harsh bell.
The central theme, indeed the point of origin of this play is "cultural memory". By not specifying the content of that memory (was it simply the fond recollection of the young forsaken spouse, or was it the more portentous destruction of cultural references during the Dark Age of the 1960s?), Ms. TIAN took the big risk of merely touching the surface. But in the end, the choice of remaining ambiguous turned out to be very potent: the most precious strands of one's life, however much one tries to protect them, cannot escape the devastation wrought by political strife. It is an ode to beauty, to art, but suddenly the spectator understands the exorbitant personal cost of maintaining culture against the onslaught of a wider disaster. And however sad one may be at the end of the play, the injunction to "remember" becomes the important message.
A minimalistic yet expressive stage set, the fact that the excellent musicians were onstage (the Sichuan tradition usually keeps them in the wings), pin-point lighting, all served the one-woman performance well.
A hot Wednesday afternoon, following the Monday performance. We are a dozen or so friends, critics, colleagues or journalists invited to share coffee with Ms. TIAN, in a glass-walled meeting room on the top of a 4-story building surrounded by much taller apartment blocks. There were two non native-Chinese speakers, a lady professor of theatre at a US university, and myself. In a relaxed atmosphere, each in turn commented the performance, criticized or lauded a particular point, some offering a wider conclusion. To me, this Wednesday afternoon was as revealing as the Monday performance itself. The debate was well informed and frank. For a foreigner, it was interesting to note that the difficulties alluded to in the latter part of the play were quite transparent to all, many referring to the so-called "cultural revolution" by name.
Beyond "Sighs" and Ms. TIAN's performance, one can wonder how audiences around the world react to Chinese culture, and indeed to what extent various Chinese art forms are accessible to people from other cultures.
During the last two decades, the renewal of Chinese artistic expression has been especially noteworthy in the visual realm. Painting is probably where innovation has been boldest, with experimentation extending from techniques to a complete renewal of subject matter. Painting has been allowed an unusual degree of liberty, as one can see in the many art galleries in Beijing's 798 Art Zone (798艺术区Yìshùqū ) or Shanghai's M50 galleries in Moganshan (莫干山) district. When asked about this, artists remark that a fair proportion of the avant-garde paintings end up abroad, so that censorship has kept one eye shut. Another very visual cultural export product is the circus, with its spectacular feats, for which no knowledge of Chinese history or culture is required to enjoy.
Films have also been a major Chinese cultural export item, to the extent that the names of some of the "fifth- and sixth-generation" directors (ZHANG Yimou, CHEN Kaige, JIA Zhangke...) and some movie stars (GONG Li, ZHANG Ziyi...) have become household names even outside China. As for music, the international appeal of a Chinese composition is inversely proportional to its China-specific style and content. In the same way, the numerous regional variants of Chinese lyrical theatre (Beijing "opera" and other types of singing/performing on stage) are extremely difficult for a non-Chinese spectator to understand, even less appreciate.
Compared with easy-to-export paintings and films, two types of intellectual and artistic production remain difficult to bring to the appreciation of a wide international public, and these are the novel and the play. I've asked quite a few intellectuals what contemporary novels they would recommend, and they often ended up talking about translations of foreign novels... As for the theatre, there remains a chasm between the China-specific aesthetic code and what people in other countries can spontaneously appreciate.
The question then arises: is there an insurmountable barrier between, say, a traditional Chinese play and a Western audience? As has been demonstrated in joint productions in France, Germany and elsewhere, some sound preparatory work helps make a play accessible to an educated public: reading about the plot, the period and the playwright before seeing the performance, and having a debate between the public and the performers.
Rendering things accessible to spectators from other backgrounds is indeed a challenge of our times, as this must be achieved without compromising the authentic inspiration of the original work. In this respect, I commend TIAN Mansha and all the artists who helped her adapt "Sighs" from a traditional Sichuan play to a performance with a more universal appeal. I followed closely the translation screens throughout the play, and this helped keep track of the plot; but more than that, it is the artistic expression, the sincerity of Ms. TIAN's acting, so well served by the Sichuan musicians, that endowed the play with universal value.
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