China on my Mind

I haven’t blogged much recently, as it’s marking term. However, I have seen a number of ‘China plays’ (as I like to call them) in London but I have wanted to think about the connections between them, or rather, to wait and see if there were any connections between them.

I write, in part, about British East Asian theatre and its transnational dynamics. Now, what is British East Asian theatre? I would generally say something written, produced, staged by or involving, British East Asian practitioners. Hampstead Theatre has just staged #aiww: The arrest of Ai Weiwei by Howard Brenton with an all male East Asian cast, and now the Almeida is trying its hand with Chimerica. But to my mind these are not really part of British East Asian theatre, because although they involve BEA actors, the production, the staging, the direction and most importantly, the perspective – especially the writing – is not.

The first thing to say is that the actors in both of these productions do a stellar job and so I always hate to criticise a play when there is talent on display. But I think that the British stage is really struggling to come to grips with China. It is like they are rushing along head first to jump on the bandwagon but in the process haven’t really thought through what they are doing – or in fact – saying.

Firstly, Brenton’s #aiww. Well it does what it says on the tin – it is a play about the 81 day detention of Ai Weiwei by Chinese officials in April 2011 based on the account he gave to the writer Barnaby Martin in his book Hanging Man. The play consists of a series of interrogations which by turns are humiliating, scary and funny. Gradually Ai Weiwei’s captors warm to him as they discuss ‘what is art?’ and they see the folly of the state’s attempts to detain him. Benedict Wong stood out in the title role and captured all the nuances of this modern artist-come-activist hero, his situation and the different ways in which he is perceived.

Yet as I sat there watching, I got the creeping sense that I was being preached to. I quite liked the thematic discussion about ‘what is art?’, but the whole production became more propagandistic, unsurprising given its source material. It appealed to the left by celebrating, and reinforcing, Ai Weiwei’s iconic status as an artist but also as the thorn in the side of the Chinese government. He has become almost better known for his stance against the Chinese state, its censorship and its human rights issues than his art. And I felt that this production showed me very little about him, his motivations or his artistic work (ok, a brief mention of all art is open to interpretation, but that’s it). It was almost as if Brenton had played into Ai Weiwei’s hands to create his greatest work yet. None of the criticisms of the Chinese state are to be denied, nor the injustice of Ai’s continued house arrest, but it was a one-dimensional view. David Tse did a great job as a smarmy politician fencing with Ai Weiwei’s status in Europe, censorship in a twitter age, and his stitch up over tax evasion. Yet the ‘Chinese state’ appeared puppet like, in the background, directing (and indeed surveilling) everything that happened in a evasive way. Whilst this is the reality of everyday China, the subtle ways people work within it were glossed over, as were the contradictory moments where the state’s presence comes to the fore. Ai Weiwei’s interrogators appeared constantly on the back foot, ignorant of art and society, or were there to be laughed at which always makes me feel shifty. In short, ‘the Chinese’ were almost stereotyped in a way appealing to, and understood by the West but authored by one of their own – with a bit of Brenton thrown in. It is unclear how much of Ai’s account is true, how much of the script he authored or changed, and how much is Brenton. Therein lies the dilemma: do you present a one-sided account, or do you open that account up to present a more complex world view? I know from experience that activism works best when you have a clear argument, but this was agit prop theatre for middle class liberals such as yours truly. And I felt uncomfortable with it. I’d have preferred a more subtle sense of things – so much of Chinese art deals with censorship as part of its aesthetic, as a constraint like money or materials, and is oblique in its critique of the state. This production simply didn’t have that dynamic yet was about the artist who excels by working in the grey areas.

Which brings me to Chimerica, the latest offering from Lucy Kirkwood at the Almeida. Well, at 3 hours 10 minutes, it needed a dramaturg and an edit. It was beautifully and slickly staged with a revolving white cube and impressive projections. The play starts from an interesting premise, with an American journalist taking one of the most famous photographs from the Tiananmen Square massacre of a man standing in front of a tank, and heading off on a search to uncover his identity. So far so good, but for me, the play didn’t really run anywhere interesting with it. It could have been a really great play about obsession. It kind of was, but the implications of that were very thin. It could have made a really great thriller on this search for the man with the bag, another vein it tried to pursue. It could have been a great play about US-China relations – but it had no real message in that regard.

For me, the title didn’t really reflect the play. ‘Chimerica’ was coined by Niall Ferguson, a way to think about the relationship between the two superpowers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, but the play only lightly touched upon US-China relations and misunderstandings. As the American journalist follows leads in his search for ‘tank man’ he finds the brother of the man driving the tank, this brother views the tank driver as the hero in the picture, not the man stood in front of it. We also see a critique of the economic band wagon hopping and of the lack of cultural understandings arising from ‘doing business in China’ but it was presented as a powerpoint lecture. Not the most subtle device for banging home a political message and a bit too reminiscent of David Hare. All of these were side lines and none of these themes were explored in any depth.

It WAS about identifying with a stranger, and so in that sense was about ‘universal truth and humanity’ but I never felt it even ran with the ethics or dilemmas of that fully either. Chimerica ended up being a story about a ‘white man in China’ – which I don’t automatically object to if the play has a real punch home message. It wasn’t a bad play and everyone was good in it, but the links between China and America never quite worked, it was like there was an American story and a Chinese story but the two didn’t fully cohere or connect. Critics have called it expansive and breathtaking, but to me all the threads ended up in a tangle.

Which brings me to David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Park Theatre and my own academic activities a few days before. I’m not just saying this because I did the Q&A, but this play delves where these other productions didn’t. In part Yellow Face is about issues of race and our inability to move towards a post-racial society. Yet it also goes into uncomfortable territory, where Chinese American citizens are suddenly detained or indicted (such as the Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee and Hwang’s own banker father) because they are perceived as foreigners working for the Chinese state. Here there was a probing, a delving into Chinese-American relations using humour and drama.

Last Friday I also attended the final Translating China event held at Westminster University  organised by Anne Witchard and Diana Yeh. I watched academics such as Duncan Hewitt and Jeffrey Wasserman, and curators Pamela Kember and Rachel Marsden all talk about the subtleties in translating Chinese cultural influences, whether in novels, art or the internet. See Rachel’s brilliant account here. They were thinking through how to mediate and understand, how to engage, how to account for cross-cultural currents. This nuance and depth is not quite what I see on stage in productions such as Chimerica or #aiww. We all want to engage with China more than ever, but I feel that very few are managing it on stage in a complex and thought provoking way.