Crit­i­cal scenes

So­cially rel­e­vant themes take stage at Wuzhen Theater Fes­ti­val

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

On the day the Fourth Wuzhen Theater Fes­ti­val opened, on Oct 13, Dario Fo died.

News of the Ital­ian play­wright’s death shocked Meng Jinghui, who is artis­tic di­rec­tor of this year’s fes­ti­val. He Had Two Pis­tols with White and

Black Eyes, a piece writ­ten by Fo in 1960, was go­ing to play at the open-air Wa­ter Theater the next day, di­rected by none other than Meng him­self.

Meng had al­ways wanted to in­vite Fo to be honorary chair­man of the Wuzhen fes­ti­val. But old age pre­vented the lat­ter from mak­ing the trip. (He died at the age of 90.) “We will use the cur­rent pro­duc­tion to re­mem­ber him,” says Meng.

Meng re­called his visit to the No­bel lau­re­ate in the late 1990 sand how he was given many tapes an do ther ma­te­ri­als. Shortly be­fore that, Meng di­rected Fo’s play Ac­ci­den­tal

Death of an An­ar­chist in Bei­jing. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal re­ports on the per­for­mance, Meng’s pro­duc­tion re­tained the comic style and sub­ver­sive un­der­cur­rent of the orig­i­nal work.

The re­ports also said that the par­al­lels be­tween what was on stage and what was hap­pen­ing in real life did not es­cape the sharp eyes of the ob­ser­vant.

In­ci­den­tally, Stan Lai, co-founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the Wuzhen fes­ti­val, also has a long history with Fo.

His Per­for­mance Work­shop has pre­sented many Chi­nese-lan­guage productions of Fo’s works, in­clud­ing the lo­cal­ized and very pop­u­lar Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!

“Fo was unique,” says Lai. “His plays may look like tra­di­tional farce, but they in­cor­po­rate so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural crit­i­cism, touch­ing upon the most in-depth is­sues of mankind. He made com­edy deep.”

So­cial rel­e­vance is on full dis­play at the Wa­ter Theater, where Chi­nese au­di­ences seem to fully grasp ev­ery joke and gag partly be­cause the di­rec­tor brings home the fre­quent par­al­lels be­tween Fo’s world and the world we live in.

Yet, to be so­cially conscious does not guar­an­tee a good piece of art.

Dur­ing the fo­rum ti­tled “Di­a­logue Be­tween East and West, Tra­di­tion and Moder­nity ”, which served as a sum­mit for the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Theater Crit­ics, a new ad­di­tion to the fes­ti­val, many par­tic­i­pants brushed aside a Ja­panese pro­duc­tion of The Cherry Or­chard as “a blender and a mixer” where the di­rec­tor sim­ply dumped her ideas on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion with lit­tle re­gard to the niceties of the art form.

Peng Tao, a theater critic and di­rec­tor of the dra­matic literature de­part­ment at the Cen­tral Academy of Drama, says many theater di­rec­tors want to place an em­pha­sis on the so­cial as­pect of a theater piece, but end up how ling and shout­ing slo­gans in­stead. This di­chotomy is the fo­cus of Dr Godot or Six Peo­ple

Search­ing for the 18th Camel, a play writ­ten by Dietrich Sch­wanitz, whose Chi­nese ver­sion was pre­miered at the fes­ti­val.

It was a dra­ma­tized debate about the sig­nif­i­cance of theater as tak­ing place in a mad­house. The par­tic­i­pants were Ber­tolt Brecht and Ge­orge Bernard Shaw ad­vo­cat­ing so­cial im­por­tance, Eu­gene Ionesco and Samuel Beck­ett de­fend­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ism, and Luigi Pi­ran­dello, whose shift in po­lit­i­cal stance and whose artis­tic ex­plo­rations have in­flu­enced the oth­ers. Or the char­ac­ters could be mad­men de­lud­ing them­selves to be 20th-cen­tury theater mas­ters. The pro­duc­tion added an­other layer by pre­sent­ing it as a pre-re­hearsal read­ing, thus light­en­ing the jar­gon-filled stuffi­ness with comedic schtick.

Lin Zhao­hua, the 80-year-old di­rec­tor of this pro­duc­tion, is a stal­wart of Chi­nese theater. Agree­ing to be honorary chair­man of the fes­ti­val this year, he fi­nally came to Wuzhen “after so many friends had been say­ing great things about it”, and he says that it is the best theater fes­ti­val in China. “Yes, bet­ter than the one in my own name,” he adds bluntly. “Mine is not up to it in bud­get, scope, breadth or in­flu­ence.”

Lin’s fes­ti­val, now in its sixth year, is not of­fi­cially called a fes­ti­val. It usu­ally pro­grams a dozen plays, some from Ger­many and East­ern Euro­pean coun­tries, and is pre­sented in Bei­jing and Tian­jin in con­junc­tion with ex­ist­ing pro­grams.

The Wuzh en fes­ti­val, how­ever, took the theater world by storm when it was launched in 2013, with its pas­sion and pro­fes­sion­al­ism. One can say it achieved overnight suc­cess. Its four parts are all ex­pertly cu­rated and pro­grammed. The in­vited shows have grad­u­ally ex­panded to 22 this year; the youth com­pe­ti­tion, now with 18 half-hour plays, is pro­duc­ing bona fide qual­ity works; the fo­rums, 17 in all, fea­ture dis­cus­sions of sub­stance; and street per­for­mances for the car­ni­val sec­tion, to­tally 1,900 shows, in­ject a big dose of fes­ti­val at­mos­phere to the small town. Sell­ing tick­ets is no longer a con­cern for the or­ga­niz­ers.

Big D was sold out in a record seven min­utes and there is even on­line scalp­ing for free tick­ets to the fi­nals of the com­pe­ti­tion.

As di­rected by Chen Ming­hao, Big Dis an adap­ta­tion of Dur­ren­matt’s Ro­mu­lus the Great. How­ever, it is not the kind of tra­di­tional stag­ing one would find in main­stream the­aters. The venue is a lobby with a grand stair­case. The boy em­peror is played by Zhang Luyi, who has re­cently been thrust into the spotlight with his break­out role in a tele­vi­sion se­ries. The ex­pe­ri­ence for Big D, as he rightly put it, is more of a party, a deca­dent one with some thought-pro­vok­ing ideas thrown in, than a nor­mal play.

This could be the sig­na­ture of Meng, known for his bold ex­per­i­ments, who has taken the fes­ti­val away from the more main­stream Lai pro­grams.

In the first two years, when the event was di­rected by Lai, the fes­ti­val in­cluded more nar­ra­tive-driven fare fa­mil­iar to most peo­ple.

Meng’s change in di­rec­tion has set off sparks when it comes to feedback, often with widely di­verg­ing opin­ions on a given piece.

But as Oc­ta­vian Saiu, a theater ex­pert par­tic­i­pat­ing in the crit­ics sum­mit put it— when two crit­ics don’t agree on a piece, the win­ner is the piece.

This fes­ti­val’s theme may be “Gaze Beyond”, a word play on the name of honorary chair­man Lin, but gaz­ing from a bridge or by the river­side in­vari­ably leads to a plunge into the river that is the charm of theater.

The Wuzhen fes­ti­val con­cludes on Satur­day.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Artists from around the world show off their skills at the out­door car­ni­val dur­ing the Fourth Wuzhen Theater Fes­ti­val, which runs through Satur­day at the an­cient wa­ter town of Wuzhen in Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

He Jiong (left) stars in­Writ­ing in­Water, a stage pro­duc­tion di­rected by Stan Lai, dur­ing the Wuzhen fes­ti­val.

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