Socially relevant themes take stage at Wuzhen Theater Festival
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.
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.