When playwright Davey Anderson travelled to Beijing with Scavengers, as short play written for students at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, he was exposed to a world of Chinese theatre that went beyond the Golden Hedgehog festival of student drama which Scavengers was appearing at. Anderson was taken to the Beijing Fringe Festival, where lots of home-grown work made largely by directors was being shown.
“I saw very little new work,” Anderson recalls, “and that made me curious about where all the new writers were. I've actually seen very little work by Chinese writers, but I knew there must be some, and that there were great stories out there about China today.”
Through the auspices of the National Theatre of China, Anderson put out an open call for writers. This was, he admits, “a mad idea, just inviting all these writers into as room with us to scribble.”
After whittling the writers down to a ten-strong group, Anderson put them with three Scottish writers, including himself alongside Rona Munro and Catherine Grosvenor, to attempt to translate the completed plays. The results of this can be seen in New Plays From China, a season of three new plays presented by the National Theatre of Scotland in partnership with Oran Mor, as well as several Chinese partners and the University of Edinburgh-based Confucius Institute For Scotland.
“Plays translated from mandarin into English are few and far between,” Anderson admits. “They can be difficult to translate, which is why we wanted to pair the Chinese writers with Scottish ones. Part of it is a cultural thing as well in terms of theatrical form. In China they tell stories that have a deep understanding of metaphor and symbolism in a way that we're not used to seeing in western writers work. There's also the context of censorship, which writers in China have to deal with every day. Whereas when you can say anything you can be ignored, if you do say something controversial in China, it will be noticed, so you have all these writers bursting with things to say, but who can't say them directly.”
New Plays From China forms the third in an annual series of seasons involving new work from lesser-known cultures. While the first introduced audiences to translations from Latin America, last year's look at work by writers from middle eastern countries was more politically pertinent. The Chinese writers turn the spotlight on their society in an equally serious manner.
The first play of the season, Secrets, written by Lin Weiran and adapted by Rona Munro, opened at Oran Mor yesterday in a production by Graeme Maley. It tells the story of a married woman's former lover who turns up on her doorstep after disappearing without warning two years earlier. This is followed next week by Thieves and Boy, Hao Jingfang's comic crime caper about a pair of vigilantes burgling a corrupt government official's home. This play is adapted and directed by Anderson himself.
The final play of the season, Fox Attack, is Xu Nuo's story about a driven young pianist who commits a shocking crime to save his own skin, an who then has to explain why he is late home to his overbearing mother. Fox Attack has been adapted by Catherine Grosvenor for a production by Amanda Gaughan.
While it was by no means deliberate that all three writers with varying degrees of playwriting experience are women, it is nevertheless a significant statement. It remains to be seen whether any of the plays will be seen in their homeland, though Anderson is confident, both about the current season, and further plays waiting in the wings, both from China and further afield.
“The writers are very clever,” he observes, “and they're not saying anything that might be silenced. There are things going on in both the background and the foreground of these plays that are absolutely about China now, stuff about inequality between the rich and the poor, about having to behave in a certain way and other things that rip society apart, but which are also about here and now beyond China. That's what excited me about these three plays. They rang a bell.”
Secrets, Oran Mor, Glasgow until April 27th, 1pm, then Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, April 30th-May 4th, 1pm. Thieves and Boys and Fox Attack follow.
The Herald, April 23rd 2013