Katya Knyazeva: Great theater, state theater and stale theater

Katya Knyazeva: Great theater, state theater and stale theater

Shanghai audiences are starving for better theater -- for now they have to be content with odd scraps

Tell me about it -- katyaFor the Shanghai Cultural Bureau, theater is sweet and sour.

Sour, because Chinese theater has a history of critiquing corrupt officials. So modern plays are intensely scrutinized and nothing social or political is allowed.

Theater is sweet, because there is a big audience. There’s cash -- and cachet -- for those who have a finger in the theatrical pie. So plays are scrutinized yet again, and nothing non-commercial is allowed.

Shanghai playwrights turn out white-collar comedies and domestic dramas.

Authorized theater serves the aspiring upper-middle class. Materialist dreams, business careers and quaint romances are gently examined and celebrated.

Everything else can sod off.

There is no shortage of Chinese talent, but talented Chinese playwrights can’t produce their plays in Shanghai.

The "off off Broadway" scene is so destitute that -- unlike Beijing or Guangzhou -- there is no feedback between the underground and the establishment.

So the mightily endowed Grand Theater and Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center serve bland pickings to a hungry audience while good ideas starve.

Smashing the stage

Still, starvation makes a lean and supple body.

“Absence,” by underground artists Li Ning was unbelievable. It played at the 2010 Fringe Festival.

There was no beginning. The stage was covered with porcelain dishes, but the actors ignored them. There was a strong sense of “something important is happening -- elsewhere.”

The dancers wandered into the gallery backstage. The audience eventually followed and encountered human sculptures drifting in and out of character; they were interacting physically, but marching to different psychic drummers.

The “drama” was hard to pin down: there was action all around. When Li Ning crossed the space, his movements were immensely focused.

Tell me about it - Shanghai theater - Li NingFrom a recent Li Ning performance. Do you feel it?

The sound of crashing arose, coaxing the audience back to their seats. We then witnessed some delicate navigation around shattered ceramics, conjuring fragile identities navigating precarious social structures. The whole thing ended abruptly.

At the Q & A after the show, a government provocateur took it upon himself to speak for the audience and attacked shivering Li Ning: “Don’t you see your case is lost? The Chinese audience doesn’t understand your art.”

Li Ning smiled: “What is ‘understanding’ anyway? It’s sufficient that they feel it.”

And we did.

Tradition and its double

Sometimes, a good Chinese drama comes here from outside the mainland. It’s usually an oversight.

I was lucky to see a perfectly executed play of ideas performed at a mainstream Shanghai theater.

“Flee by Night,” by Hong Kong director Danny Yung, was adapted from a 400-year-old Kunqu opera tragedy.

This was not an updated Chinese opera, but a hyper-modern meditation on theater.

Yung attacked the separation between actor and audience with a nonstop silent barrage of questions projected on the backdrop. The actors -- fabulously grounded Kunqu stars Ke Jun and Yang Yang -- performed a pantomime of betrayal, mentorship and thwarted ambition.

Crimson sashes flew across the stage and white chairs were incrementally shifted by stagehands, while two actors embodied 500 years of Chinese theater tradition in a totally contemporary context.

Tell me about it - Shanghai theater - Flee by night“Flee by Night” makes it from Hong Kong to the Shanghai stage.

This was the real deal: the work insisted you actively engage and question what you’re seeing. Those questions persist in the memory days after the show is over.

Shows like this are rare at best.

Gravitas and anarchy

Local officials are so worried that after a performance opens in Beijing it has to be “toned down” to play in Shanghai. Foreign productions are mostly limited to blockbuster musicals.

Oh, a little “Romeo and Juliet” was allowed. And the inevitable “Mousetrap.”

But in June, Hamburg’s Thalia Theater somehow get “Caligula” into the city. This production delivered the kind of intensity that Shanghai audiences deserved -- indeed, more than they asked for.

Superbly trained German actors, playing real politic ministers, were harassed and executed by a nihilistic grunge emperor wrapped in a soiled blanket.

Members of the audience were ‘struggled against,’ as well. Caligula pounced across the seats and dragged bewildered spectators on stage, yelling: “Have you thought about death?”

This was mainline theater of cruelty -- but the verve and naturalism of the production made the evening magical. When surprises came, they were blunt and intense.

The producer, Jochen Hahn, was concerned he wouldn’t fill the seats, so tickets were given away. He had nothing to fear. The remaining shows sold out in a flash.

This was 2010. Interestingly, the three strongest productions all attacked the separation between the spectator and the spectacle.

And it makes sense.

Amid Shanghai’s painfully unexamined materialism, people desire an honest mirror, an intellectual and spiritual challenge. That is real theater, and Shanghai needs much more of it.

Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
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