Possibly for the first time, stage and screen versions of the same work are on show more or less in conjunction in Edinburgh's festivals. The theatrical incarnation of Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace (co-written with the late Wang Xiaobo) is the first to be aired, at the Gateway Theatre; sadly, the care taken over its presentation and content do not amount to the hoped-for dramatic impact.
Zhang concerns himself with the homosexual tradition in Chinese history, its almost complete erasure under Communism but the persistence of a clandestine gay lifestyle. A-Lan, a writer (played by Lu Xiao Pin), begins to tell a fable about a constable's arrest of a female thief; he repeats the beginning several times, then shears off into an account of his own encounter in a Beijing "cottaging" park with a policeman whose curiosity and temptation alternate with oppression and violence. (The title of the piece refers to the two public toilets in the park, in one of which Hu Jun's constable apprehends A-Lan.)
To one side of the stage, two Kunqu actors painstakingly make themselves up as women and periodically sing Kunqu arias. The otherwise bare stage is hung with medical drip-bags slowly discharging their contents into steel basins, symbolising... what? The pervasiveness of homosexual life and culture? The incremental closeness of A-Lan and the constable? The sound of a badly-plumbed set of toilets? On occasion, the two main actors take a few of each other's lines – difficult transitions to follow at the best of times, exacerbated here by unhelpfully timed surtitling.
As A-Lan is prompted into a series of factual and fictional stories, his intimacy with and vilification by the constable increase, until he is forced into a gown and wig for the final phase, in which he first engages with and is then savagely beaten by the policeman in the shallow pool of water at the rear of the stage.
The play seems to aim for the patterning and precision of classical Chinese drama, but too often its minimalism and understatement simply translate as longueur. Zhang makes a telling point about the massive and fundamental revisionism suffered by homosexual culture in China, but the process and vision he employs to do so come over in this production, not so much as delicate, but simply as slow and – with all due apologies for using the term – inscrutable. The cinematic version of the story will, one presumes, throw a different light upon it; the 80-minute stage version rather overplays its hand.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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