Presented as part of the Palaver Festival which celebrates and promotes language, music and performance in French, German and Chinese in Manchester, and produced by students of The University of Manchester Chinese Studies Department, this was a production, not of the more well known play by William Inge bearing the same title, but of that by French-Chinese award winning playwright, Gao Xingjian's play, Bus Stop and performed in Chinese.
Not only is this the first time Palaver have had a Chinese language play in their festival it is also the first time I have ever sat through one too. It was a very interesting but hugely rewarding experience. But thank goodness for the subtitles - I would have been utterly lost without them!
The play, and playwright, although very famous in China, are unknown and unperformed in the UK, and so, to watch something that was so far culturally removed from European theatre was very refreshing, and yet it was still somehow familiar. This is modern Chinese theatre, and modern Chinese writing, and as such has absorbed much of the 20th century world culture into the play. Indeed, the playwright openly confesses to owing a lot of this play to his fondness for Beckett and 'Waiting For Godot' in particular.
It is an absurdist comedy, and offers no answers. Characters enter the stage and wait at a bus stop. Buses pass, and don't stop. More characters enter, and the silent woman disappears; more buses come, and don't stop and tempers get high. Times passes - in fact, a lot of time passes - and if we are to go along with the absurdist nature of the play, we see that 10 years pass, and still the characters wait for a bus. Eventually, and in unison, they all decide they have waited long enough and all walk off.
After speaking to some of the cast and audience last night I learnt a few things. Firstly, and most importantly, this production was true to the playwright and his intentions and secondly, the characters spoke a whole lot more than what was actually subtitled! Further to this, one thing that surprised me was that the characters were very monodimensional with only one aim, only one thought, only one facet. An old man obsessed with chess and needing to go and play a game with a chess master; a young girl needing to buy yoghurt, and a lady who cannot stop talking about her Peipei (baby). This though, is a feature of Chinese theatre and theatrical style, and so, despite their characters striking a rather false and flat note in Western culture, this was most appropriate and correct for Eastern.
I enjoyed the performance of The Old Man, by Wentao Zhu, but I feel certain he should have been made-up to look older. His body language and stick not sufficient to be totally convincingly. The Hot Head, Lani Calvert, brought some much need upbeat humour and change of dynamic to the play. Enda Boorman's rather intellectual Glasses was pathetically touching, (a compliment!) and Romain Malandre's Director Ma was full of bathos, starting, as he did, with such a high-handed ignorant sweep across the queue, to being left totally alone at the end and his pathetic running off after them.
I feel sure that with an English language version I would have understood and enjoyed it even more; but as it was, it was still highly entertaining. It was such a shame that the subtitles were not complete, and that during the rain-canopy scene, the screen obscured from my view.
It is hugely commendable that Manchester can advertise a Chinese language production of famous Chinese playwrights such as Xingjian, and marvellous that it can be performed at such a prestigious venue. It is such a pity that the audience was made up mainly of fellow students and few others. I sincerely hope that more original language theatre can be produced in the future. We are now living, more than ever before in a multi-cultural society, and Manchester houses the greatest diversity of nations outside of London. We should embrace this opportunity to be proud of cultural differences - including language and literature.
As part of The Palaver Festival, The Contact Theatre are also hosting productions of Schiller's Kabale Und Liebe, and Satre's masterpiece, Huis Clos. More details here - http://contactmcr.com/whats-on
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 17th March 2016