The Other Shore: Chinese play-reading at the New Diorama Theatre

Wing Hong, Hugo and Lucy

There’s no business like show business … I had a great time last night onstage with a group of talented Asian actors who’d been brought together at the New Diorama Theatre by director Wing Hong Li.

As an exploration of power dynamics and the madness of crowds, The Other Shore, written by Gao Xingjian, is superb theatre. Writing for an ensemble of actors, Gao renders power relations visible, turning the piece into an effective tool with which to challenge blind authority and the characters who play along either as predator or victim.

An innocent fool is part of a group embarking on a journey from “the real world” to the other side of a river where he witnesses how his fellow travellers deal with a succession of character archetypes who enter their lives and upset their equilibrium.

Last night’s rehearsed reading, the first British performance, came together after only one day’s work. I played various parts of the chorus and got to read the Card Player, a plum role which I saw as a cross between Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil and Heath Ledger as the Joker.

A trickster gambler who’s stacked the odds, the Card Player chooses the game, acts as banker, decides on the trump card (her own) and manipulates the crowd into working against their own interests. Now, where have we seen that before?

Gao employs various devices to see the world anew. The use of ropes throws into razored relief the games we play when finding our place in society. The protagonist’s increasingly dehumanised brethren become threatening trees and mannequins.

A sort of Chinese Life of Brian with zombies, there’s enough sly wit to make the game of spot-the-character-type an amusing one. I did, at one point, expect the hero to lose a sandal and discard a gourd. He’s definitely not the Messiah, just a very confused bloke trying to make sense of this twilight world.

The play was banned in China for some unfathomable reason despite there being no explicit criticism of the government. It’s a commentary on what happens when human relations get skewed and is a plea for us all to be better to each other … oh. I see. Right. Understood.

This play is relevant to every region and sphere where creeps are clinging to power. Do catch it if you ever see it being staged.

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