By Joseph Lynch, Associate Artist & Trainer
As the last of the dust from the summer sun starts to settle and the weather warnings of flash floods and hard-core drizzle begin bombarding UK screens once again, David asks me to take a moment to reflect on my time with the Ensemble these past few months, on China and returning to the UK.
China. Where to begin?
The Land of Milk and Honey
Wheels down in Shuangliu International Airport, I am bunged into the back of a taxi and submerged into a wild river of traffic, sailing seamlessly through the multitude of currents along the roads, on top of roads, on top of roads, the first thing that hits me is that nothing really ever stops moving here. It doesn’t, and neither do I, for 8 weeks everything moves. By Chinese standards, ChengDu, the capital of the Sichuan Province and one of China’s leading cultural cities, is not that big, it only has 14 million people… which of course means it is huge and sprawling.
Jetlagged and slightly delirious, I arrived at Marphy’s Playhouse to warm greetings of excitement and curiosity from the team there. The Playhouse is a bustling children’s theatre that showcases theatre from all across the world to perform on its stage and runs an extensive Drama and Education program for a wide range of ages, led by a passionate team of teachers who also devise and direct projects with the children.
The teachers, who will in turn be some of my students too, look at me like I have some great secret to reveal to them. There is a look in their eyes I recognise, which perhaps they can see it in mine also; mischief. We will go on to discover much together and form deep bonds of friendship. Later that week I began teaching, both the young children full of a nuclear energy and the teachers at the Playhouse, as well as undergraduates at the Sichuan Academy of Art. With all three groups, we begin with the fundamental principle of theatre…and life; ‘pushing and pulling’. It was a fascinating moment to take three different generations through this work in the same week and witness their experiences and investigations.
The young children playing with themes of possession and death.
The young adults almost singularly concentrating on themes of sex and desire.
The older adults on themes of love, desperation and oppression.
After the jetlag fades I start to see my experience of China more clearly and realise that ChengDu is altogether unique. The pace of life is a gentle buzz. Always humming, but softly. “It is the most relaxed of China’s mega-cities” I am proudly told, over and over again, “the Manchester of China”. And indeed, it does have that same off beat energy about it. An ancient and still embedded tradition of spending hours in tea houses has etched a sense of ease in the people and the very fabric of the streets. That’s one aspect. Yet on every street, there are three or four towering feats of construction sending dust wafting through the air, there’s already an impressive subway network and nine more lines are being built across the city, there’s the mecca-like malls summoning thousands of shoppers every hour to consume, community squares and the wild nightlife.
In the night time, every window is alight. And the murmur doesn’t stop. In every Square clusters of onlookers stand around smoking by their motorcycles or huddled intensely watching the old-men play Mahjong in the corners. As I walk through an old lady, on a stool under a tree,bows traditional music from a sort of two stringed violin and somewhere in the distance a flute can be heard, there is no basket to collect money, they’re just playing. Ladies in gowns move up and down the square in rivers of silk. Across the way some 40 people have gathered and are being led in a Tai-Chi meets Zumba dance class. The sellers from the market shops are still shouting trying to get rid of their last produce, and a group of raucous girls run past me and jump on the back of some mopeds and are whisked away, I imagine to the river bank lined with western style clubs and cocktail bars.
There was something in the unbridled buoyancy of the city, that seemed to be shouting out, a presence born of strength, something that felt familiar and threw me off guard all at once, some youthful teenager, already grown but not fully formed, desperate to shake off the chains of its parents, full of wonderful hypocrisies, contradictory, embedded in an older tradition, immersed with socialist values, saturated with capitalism and subverting with rebellion all at once.
UK and the Future
One of the greatest challenges during my time in China, was the sense of being disconnected from what was happening at home in the UK. With access to most western websites and certainly social media being very limited it was very difficult to engage with the changing tides here. Over the last few years, I’ve had a growing sensation, like many, that what is happening couldn’t be real. Feelings of being so disorientated that everything became incredibly harsh and yet muted at the same time. As if, walking past a house on the street, you glance through the window and become enthralled by the most violent, graphic and disgusting horror movie playing on the big screen. Hideous and depraved acts unfolding, yet the family watching inside are cuddling, sweetly, cosy and un-phased on the sofa. In many ways, there was a strong desire in me to actively disengage. To no longer want to identify as British and ignore what was going on at home, which in truth is a very real reflection of what is going on in the rest of the world. So we cannot abandon the UK artistically, or politically.
David talks often about the nature of things being both general and specific. A good story has a fundamental relevance to all of humanity but it is also wholly appropriate to a certain audience. For me, right now, it is a paramount priority to engage with artists and students of different cultures and backgrounds, making work with and for different audiences around the world. In these trying and disconnected times we have to be artistic diplomats. And not be artistically lazy. We have to create new work, that is interesting and relevant and not sacrifice that, and stop with the haggard attempts to cobble something together and simply trying to please funding bodies. These things become self-perpetuating. We have to invest more than ever in the UK, be an ambassador for the things we love about it, and also invest in the rest of the world, multi-culturalism is the beginning not the destination. The issues we are facing in the UK are national issues, specific to us, but also global, affecting and effecting the general population of the earth. A desire to isolate and throw up barriers. A rise in Nationalism. Class divides. Climate Change. I’m making a firm commitment to creating international work over the next few years, presented abroad and in the UK. that is important, necessary and powerful to the people who make it and its audience. I don’t feel like that is a departure from England, but the opposite; an entrenchment.
As I write this I’m reminded of something Peter Brook said in his latest book ‘Tip of the Tongue’. A powerful and insightful little book about theatre and the current state of the world. It seems apt to finish with this quote:
“When the times are negative, there is only one current that secretly goes against the tide. The positive. The very vagueness of the word creates a negative reaction and shows how hard it is to detect. But unless its murmur is heard, not through platitudes, not through preachers’ noble words, but through a reality that living theatre-people can bring, it has no function. We must enter the “No” to find the “Yes”. How?
If anyone proposes an answer, it’s immediately suspect. But we must face the riddle.
In the theatre, we have rightly rejected cosy and degraded ideas of beauty, harmony, order, peace, joy. Now experimentally, directly, in our spaces, we need to rediscover what these hackneyed values once contained. A shock that awakes our indignation is cosy and is quickly forgotten. A shock that opens us to the unknown is something else and makes us feel stronger as we leave. The mainstream mustn’t be despised, it has a great vocation. But to go against the tide, we have only one pathetic instrument, the human being. Finding the vital currents hidden in this misery is a formidable task.”
– Peter Brook, Tip of the Tongue, 2017