The cast and crew of The Red Court, a Rapscallion Theatre production, have just returned from Shanghai. The Red Court production won a competition hosted by the Confucius Institute, the Chinese equivalent of the British Council. The prize was to perform the play in China, but things did not entirely go to plan.
The Red Court was written for a festival celebrating Shakespeare and his Chinese contemporary Tang Xianzu. The Confucius Institute wanted plays that fused China and Shakespeare. I remembered a scandal that made international headlines a few years ago, where a corrupt and power-hungry Communist Party politician, Bo Xilai, and his wife Gu Kailai, were accused of murdering her British lover. I re-told the story as a contemporary Chinese Macbeth.
Director Carolyn Csonka and the talented cast of Michelle Lee, Mayur Bhatt, Sarah Curwen and Chris Constantine staged the play in typical theatrical Rapscallion fashion, using techniques of Chinese theatre, puppetry, multi-roling and a simple but effective set.
We never thought The Red Court would win the competition – the topic was far too political, even though we had changed the names of the characters. But it did win, and thereby created a problem for the Confucius Institute.
“You must realise that in China this subject is….very sensitive,” one staff member told me.
“Of course you can’t perform a play about Bo Xilai in China,” a Chinese friend said, bluntly.
However, the Confucius Institute had announced in public that Rapscallion would go to China, and in August, the trip finally took place. The Confucius Institute sent all six of us to Shanghai for a week, providing flights, hotels, meals, a minibus and an interpreter.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to visit China which I don’t think I would ever have done under my own steam,” said Sarah Curwen.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Carolyn Csonka.
Shanghai was astonishing. We were escorted around the glistening financial district, went on a night-time river tour to see the sky scrapers lit up, and ate in traditional Chinese restaurants, but perhaps the aspect of Shanghai we enjoyed most was the parks.
“I loved being able to join in with tai chi in the morning,” said Sarah.
“The communities we saw in parks and the way people all just sat out and chatted and exercised and practiced their art and tried to find spouses in the open was lovely,” said Michelle.
But what of the play? On our final day, we went to the Shanghai Theatre Academy, who had part-sponsored the competition.
“Can you perform the play tomorrow?” director Wan Li Ming asked. But the Confucius Institute had carefully booked us on flights home the next day. Instead, the Shanghai Theatre Academy treated us to a glorious workshop on Chinese theatre, led by Peking Opera students, who taught us physicality in Chinese theatre, including the use of water sleeves to express emotion. This was the highlight of the trip for most of us.
“Having the opportunity to meet some of the lecturers and students at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and talking about each other’s latest productions, approaches to theatre, and best of all, being given a workshop on the techniques of Chinese classical theatre – fantastic!” said Carolyn.
“I learnt so much in short space of time about Chinese opera and theatre craft, and ‘playing around’ with them was excellent,” said Mayur Bhatt.
“It was good to see how they are using traditional techniques and ideas in contemporary work,” said Michelle.
“We enjoyed traditional Chinese Opera on the TV and then when we went to the Shanghai Theatre Academy to be taught some of the movements, it was thrilling!” said Sarah.
“Can I have a copy of the script?” said Wan Li Ming as we were leaving.
“I would be delighted, I told him. Did he want it with the names changed?”
“No, no,” he said. “I know what it’s about. I’d like my students to perform it.”
So, instead of having the dubious honour of being banned in China, The Red Court might live on at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. I certainly hope so.
Meanwhile, I think that the Red Court production team can truly say that we had a memorable trip to Shanghai, which we are unlikely to forget anytime soon.
Clare Reddaway, writer of The Red Court