“This evening Shanghai witnessed perhaps its most dramatic moment of English theatre this century”: The whisper and the storm


(Rene Gallimard & Song Liling, M Butterfly, Shanghai, 2009)


The following journal narrates my production of David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly in Shanghai in 2009.  It caused quite a stir, as you will see.  Though my work was given a dream tagline – “this evening Shanghai witnessed perhaps its most dramatic moment of English theatre this century” – it was not to prove of any immediate help to my career.

The actors’ names are fictitious.

The Daily Telegraph‘s take on the event is here.

‘The Whisper and the Storm’ was published in The Istanbul Review 4: Winter 2013

Prologue: The whisper and the storm

When Björk championed Tibetan independence during a concert in Shanghai in 2008 she imperilled artistic expression by foreigners in China. The authorities were so peeved by her show of dissent they immediately suspended a new-found tolerance towards English-language cultural spectacle, notably theatre, the immediacy of which frightens autocrats. Now, even the most anodyne of shows could only take place with advanced governmental approval of scripts along with the submission of video-recorded rehearsals and of participants’ passports, visas, addresses and photographs. Official consent, I’d heard, could take up to two years. With a whisper, Bjork had created a storm. Her squeak for freedom heralded its withdrawal in the most intimidating of circumstances; and to circumvent state sanction in China is to invite trouble. But only if they find out about you.

Act 1. Come on down you Zuloo warrior

Summer 2009. I am moonlighting as a freelance theatre director in Shanghai. English-language theatre in China is virtually non-existent. With the exception of limited runs by Broadway musicals, drama is expensive to produce and fraught with wily back-handedness. Earnest audiences must wait for the occasional touring company, whose work will be closely monitored by the Ministry of Culture, China’s own Master of the Revels.

The key rule to observe when dipping under the radar is that you don’t sell tickets, for this would foreshadow a ‘public event’ and invite police scrutiny. Instead, the mouse side-steps the cat by receiving ‘donations’, which are set up by e-mail and take place in a well-known bar in the centre of the city. Tickets as we know them are not bought, they are scored. For the few active producers in Shanghai, this illicitness encourages the allure. Every English-language production I have seen in China has arrived on stage this way; and every one has proceeded smoothly.

With such clandestine industry I have recently directed Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Neil Simon’sCalifornia Suite, the former in a damp recital room, the latter in a rickety Chinese opera theatre. Blessed by terrific actors, these works have come to the attention not of the censors, but of a local English-language arts company, Zuloo Theatre Productions. The founder, a fellow St Andrews graduate, had courted controversy in Fife in 2004 when staging Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi, in which Jesus and the Disciples are portrayed as homosexuals. Many placards were snapped and Bibles scuffed in the protests that followed. In a spectacular triumph of publicity, she made it on to Radio 4’s The Today Programme.

Zuloo is already well known in Shanghai as a forum for leftfield performance, having organised China’s first ever act of guerrilla theatre. A crowd of Europeans had gathered on a subway train to whistle ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, to the astonishment of fellow passengers. Such a display wouldn’t merit a mention in the flash-mobbed west; here, it was dynamite.

The founder’s habit of disjointing noses had brought her to direct a play connected to Shanghai’s Gay Pride week. Advanced notice leaked and she was hauled in for questioning by the Public Security Bureau. Bravely, she opted to change venue at the last moment, scoring both theatrical and dissident success. But she was now a known quantity, which effectively curtailed all her future theatrical prospects. Two days before returning to England, she asks me to take over as Zuloo’s Shanghai artistic director. Restlessly, I talk it through with my wife, who is five months pregnant with our son.

With joy and trepidation in equal measure, I agree; excitement prevails. It’s one thing to provoke dissent back home, quite another to do so in China, a card-carrying communist autocracy. There’s one proviso: I have to agree that my first production will be a five-night run of M Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s award-winning recalibration of Puccini’s opera. My predecessor has already reeled in a big fish to star in the show, China’s foremost jazz singer, Nico Zhou. Thereafter, I can direct whatever I want. A pared-down Hamlet set in the aftermath of Szechuan’s devastating earthquake tops my list.

Hwang’s play skilfully redraws the orientalist mind-set. His butterfly, Song Liling, is a Chinese spy and a self-aggrandising shrew. The prey, Rene Gallimard, is a French diplomat whose ageing heart is ripe for exploitation. Gallimard is drawn from the story of a real-life French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, who subsequently spied for China for eighteen years. Shi Pei Pu, the young lover, produced a baby of their union. After all this, how was Bouriscot to know that his butterfly was in fact a man? The attendant sensationalism is one the play’s key themes, though in terms of contemporary China’s political self-awareness, hardly the most contentious.

One of my Chinese actors, Spice, is the first to question the play’s politics. ‘You can’t put transvestites, spies, Mao suits, and the Cultural Revolution on stage in China’, she states with perfect clarity. I don’t tell her that I have also planned a flash of testicle and an all-male kiss. ‘Water it down or you’re asking for trouble.’  I am eager to listen to her thoughts but loath to act upon her advice. I’m not in the business of watering down drama, particularly a critique as crafty as this one. Jo, Zuloo’s manager, who is Taiwanese and therefore potentially an even bigger target than my mainland actors, also asks me to make some amendments. ‘But then we’re not producing M Butterfly, but what I think will work as M Butterfly’, comes my reply. Zuloo’s founder, now living in the relative safety of Reading, urges me to stick, as it were, to the plot. And as it were, I agree.

The same evening, I undertake one of the more pleasant of my new responsibilities. Zuloo has offered to pay for a heart operation for a 9-year old-daughter of an indigent rural family, so my wife and Jo and I go along to intensive care meet her. We have been told by the hospital management that such parents are not allowed into ICU for reasons of ‘hygiene’. So, somewhat bizarrely, we are marched past the girl’s fraught mother and father (who strain to get a peek of their sick daughter) and into the ward. She is a cutey, albeit a little overawed. I wouldn’t want to be the first person I saw after a heart op, frankly. She perks up considerably when I hand her a stuffed animal from my backpack, though neither of us seems sure which animal it’s supposed to be

Act 2. ‘It’s not like we’re standing up to tanks’

After dark, Lupu Bridge is mind-bending, a scene from Blade Runner; the high-rise, the neon, the sheer scale, the desire to be bigger and brighter, to out-develop the developed world. I have nothing but admiration for the Chinese in their ambition and their work ethic; and nothing but suspicion for the 1% under whom they toil in ten name of hegemony.

This is the view my taxi ride affords, twice a night, five nights a week, an hour each way if all goes well. We rehearse in a run-down restaurant with a stage at one end separated from the dining area by a huge chiffon curtain. I get home around 11.00pm to my wife who lies beached in bed, her swollen stomach containing our other current production. We open in two weeks; her birth canal will follow immediately after. It’s an odd sensation, to be so committed to a show so close to the birth of our first child; to be rehearsing elsewhere, so to speak. ‘Florian’ is now due on closing night. I don’t think I’m subverting my artistic integrity if I say I hope he turns up late.

My cast are the perfect mix of temperaments and nationalities, with two Chinese, two Brits, an American, an Irishman, a Canadian, a Czech and a Latvian. On board with the jazz singer are two teachers, a fashion director, a writer, a PR guru, a dance instructor and a Disney exec. Most have acted professionally and make a buck, like the majority of the acting world, elsewhere. As a get-to-know-you gesture, we meet at the restaurant to have dinner and to watch on a big screen Chen Kaige’s imperious Farewell my Concubine. This sets up Butterfly’s operatic, cross-dressing and revolutionary themes, varying degrees of which we take into every rehearsal.

Throughout the lengthy rehearsal process, I fidget endlessly at a lectern, often leaping out, the better to explain how I want to pace a scene or block a meeting; all the while my stage manager to my left constantly scribbles, erases, scribbles anew, directions, movements and thoughts into her prompt book. I’m busy, but never tired during rehearsals; wired, fully alive. It’s the next day at school that I’m yawning, aching. After a month, it slowly begins to form; I start to envision the play taking place in front of an audience, which is how, in my head, stage drama comes together.

Nico has taken to flirting with me, which I have no problem with as long as I can get a great performance out of him. He calls me ‘Sexy Daddy’, winks at me all the time. He’s low maintenance for a star, I have to say. He only ever needs to be told once what I’d like him to try, which impresses me hugely. There is no wasted time in his company, though he does at one point turn up with a film crew, who are documenting his role for his management company’s website. While I’m directing, behind me there is someone else directing. Soon enough, the director director asks the director if he could direct from one side only, as he’s blocking the shot of Nico. My head begins to ache, my chest feels tight. This is no time for a coronary.

Dermot, a close friend, and, in the form of a fifty-something Irishman, an odd muse, is fussing around as always, checking his blocking, tinkering with his inflection, experimenting on his pauses. The leopard-print thong he wore in California Suite had Shanghai dabbing its sweaty brow; enough, I hope, to bring them back for M Butterfly, even though in the role of the French Ambassador to China, he wears black tie and dinner jacket.

By now, I’ve had several meetings with Bry, our stage designer, to finalise screens, scrims, translucent gauzes, candles and Chinese lanterns. Maria, our marketing manager, has put out the press packs and I do a couple of interviews with local ex-pat magazines, for which we’ve prepared a basic line: avoid all reference to Butterfly’s revolutionary plot and sexual intercourse with transvestite spies. Instead we go with ‘love’, ‘betrayal’, and ‘sexual identity’.

Jo has completed our negotiations with the theatre. They’ve agreed not to sell tickets, which, perversely, means we can proceed. There’s also choreography to organise. Maria has danced professionally as has a friend of hers. They’ll dress up as red army soldiers and perform kendo-style manoeuvres at the required time. They’ll also unfurl a banner which apes revolutionary denunciations. In public, we refer to this as ‘stylised dance to symbolise historical moments.’

The question about being closed down is never far away. We know that we’re sailing close to the wind with this production, that nothing like this has been seen publicly in modern China. We also know how important it is to push the boundaries, to see whether we can get away with something so alien to the Chinese Realpolitik. But discussion of a police raid is informally tabooed, as if by mentioning it we’ll fulfil the prophecy. With the constant repetition that rehearsal entails, my cast’s fears recede from unsettling scenes. By now I respond glibly to any concerns: ‘Hey, it’s not like we’re standing up to tanks’. I do know that the company will go bust if we get shut down. Zuloo won’t have enough in the bank for another production and in any case, no sponsor will go anywhere near us, no future audience will risk a night out like no other.

Slowly and surely, the butterfly net spreads, as do the butterfly’s wings.

Act 3. A right old Ding Dong

The night before our technical rehearsal a correspondent from The Daily Telegraph calls to ask for an interview.  How about tomorrow, but I might be up a ladder?  I can’t say no because the publicity will be great, but I do have to be careful with my words. We chat at the back of the theatre, up high in the raked seating, looking down as lights and sound go through their final checks. On the way home, I’m nagged by wondering whether I made the right decision to go so public with the show.

Opening night nerves are settled when Jana, who plays Gallimard’s wife, brings the cast a Thanksgiving dinner from the swank hotel managed by her husband. I eat turkey and brussel sprouts for the first time since leaving the west and banter with JD, a Washingtonian, about how grateful I am not to be an American in China but thanks awfully for the food. It seems a reassuring way to celebrate our opening, honest western stodge supplanting mysterious Chinese delicacy. I take some home to my wife, who any time now will be eating just for one again, but for now fuels herself heartily for the exertions to come.

In the green room before curtain up on the second night, Dermot tells me how grouchy I’ve become, how I’m obviously not enjoying being a theatrical pioneer. As usual, he is spot on. There were lapses of concentration on opening night, at one point Gallimard walked off stage mid speech; he’d lost his way. As director, I carry the can for this, though I can’t for the life of me work out how to help actors concentrate during a performance; it’s justwhat they do. I want to scream at this incompetence, but at this stage the truth would be counter-productive, so instead I remind the cast that no audience in the world will be as tetchy as their director.

As always in Shanghai, during the performances audience members are chatting on their phones and taking photographs. The more I ask them not to, the more they seem to dissent. It’s maddening for the actors to work through, I think to myself on night three, sat in the back row plum in front of the sound booth; the theatre is full. I’ve had lots of positive feedback from the Daily Telegraph interview and I’ve laughed for the first time in days, maybe weeks. My lighting engineer, Dong, has brought along a friend who he is training in lighting. The friend’s name is Ding, and as Dong introduces Ding, for one brief moment I’m stood between them in the box, looking first at one and then the other. I check with Jo that this isn’t some kind off Shanghainese April Fool’s, before concluding, once again, that there is stuff in life that you can’t make up.

For the first time, Gallimard has carried off the scene that perennially sets my teeth on edge; I can kick back for a good half hour before I start to chew my fingers again. But then my mobile vibrates in my pocket. This is it: my wife has gone into labour; we didn’t make it through; the boy demanded to be seen early; I’ll not have to re-arrange the set in order to accommodate her bump in the front row on closing night.

But it’s not her. ‘Jo’ flashes up. This is odd. I thought she was a couple of rows in front of me. I am in any case squashed in, and cannot move to the aisle to speak with her. The thought strikes that she might be calling me unwittingly and I ignore the phone. She goes away. Good. It rings again. This time I connect. Jess’s voice comes through and tells me that I have to come to the foyer. ‘They’re here,’ she says; ‘they’ve come.’ ‘Who?’ I whisper; ‘Who’s here?’ Someone down the row ‘shushes’ me. I want to shout ‘I am the fucking director, I’ll talk on my mobile all I want!’, but my superego quickly caresses my id into silence. In the dark I shuffle over many pairs of legs, creep down the scaffold’s creaking stairs, fling open the double doors and step out. I doubt there remains a person within who wouldn’t want to slap me right now. But I don’t care because in truth, I know exactly what Jo’s phone call is about. My heart thumps in my ears. My throat dries instantly like I’ve swallowed a packet of MSG.

Jo, whose facial expression recalls Act Five of Titus Andronicus, is standing next to four plainclothes policeman, to a man wearing ill-matching jackets and trousers, like a parody of a boy-band. Two others are talking to the staff at the front desk. They are not smiling, not even falsely. The shortest of them pulls out an identification which Jo tells me is from the Culture Ministry. I quickly glimpse a holster inside his jacket and wonder if they have reinforcements outside in case the audience gets strident with their programmes. He looks unwell. ‘This show is closed down’, he tells us in Mandarin. ‘This show is finished.’ He looks like he’s just bitten into a lime.

My immediate reaction is to offer him a bung. Back behind my burning eyes, I see he and I standing in a toilet cubicle, me handing him a wad of notes, patting him on the shoulder. Bearing in mind we’ve just broken even and nights four and five are all profit, we could afford a donation to the Ministry’s forthcoming ‘Year of the Tiger’ festivities. Jo nervously reminds me I have two Chinese cast members on stage right now, not to mention she herself is Taiwanese; if I offer a bribe and it goes wrong, I will most likely be deported, but my Chinese colleagues will most likely be imprisoned. My wife, who is too far gone to fly, would then give birth without me. I take a deep breath as it all comes home to me. There is no way that I can think about paying our way out of this. For the sake of what? A voice in my head tells me what is playing out in front of me is taken, as they say, from life. This is no martyrs-for-art’s-sake fantasy or an orientalised version of the white man wafting a few notes around in the far flung corners of the empire.

While one side of me loves the idea of police bursting into the auditorium and turning off the lights, the rational other asks them if at least we could continue with that night’s performance. Astonishingly, they agree. Is there a chip in the glass here? Emboldened, I invite them in to watch, but Jo refuses to translate for me. ‘Are you crazy? The second half is slapstick Mao and men kissing men.’ ‘But they won’t get it, they don’t speak English.’  ‘Daniel,’ she implores, ‘they have eyes!’ Ruefully, I concede. The dream of broadening China’s world view is over, the butterfly snared. I shake hands with them all, moving down the surreal line like a prince at a cup final, waving them off the premises. ‘Right, let’s completely ignore that, pretend it never happened,’ I say to Jo. But she is shaking, in tears; scared half to death by what she has seen. I am desperate to tell someone what has gone down but I certainly can’t do so backstage when there is a second half to run. They’ll be feeling great, I know, buzzing at last; every actor wants to give one performance they can walk away from knowing they have nailed both text and texture.

The second half is outstanding. Not perfect, but outstanding. Audience members are on their feet applauding, something I’ve not experienced before. Only after the cast have taken their bows do I come unannounced onto the stage, into the spotlight, to tell the happy crowd we’ve been closed down by the police. There are gasps from the actors behind me, now frozen in shock at the moment of their optimal adulation, and from the audience out front. A couple in the second row hug one another, though I can’t tell whether it’s from fear or from the excitement of such a moment as this. The Telegraph journalist happens to be a few rows back. She has taken a couple of pictures on her mobile to accompany tomorrow’s article, and now scrambles a few words from me before the company disappeared backstage. She’ll later write “this evening Shanghai witnessed perhaps its most dramatic moment of English theatre this century,” a heaven-sent sound-bite but one which barely resonates in the immediate aftermath of the closure.

As we pack up in silence, Jo tells us that when we leave the theatre we should look down to the ground and keep walking, not to stop for anyone, even friends who are waiting for us. She thinks the police will be photographing us. She also advises us to split up into groups and take taxis in different directions. I want to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of this. I also want to get the hell out of this bizarre short story and back home to my wife. I walk out shoulder-to-shoulder with Dermot. There are indeed dozens of people hanging around and several flashing cameras. My name is called out by voices I both recognise and have never heard. ‘Head Down’, whispers Dermot in his finest Dublin brogue. ‘You’ve a baby to deliver, my boy; one that nobody can stop.’ He finds us a taxi immediately. We drive a mile or so, and then take another cab for safety. Within the hour, I’m stroking my wife’s stomach and pouring out my frustration.

Epilogue. The most famous guy in China

Seven months later I am sitting in the Glamour Bar, perhaps Shanghai’s most fashionable establishment, whose art deco walls and monochrome coasters belie China’s poverty. I am here, somewhat uncomfortably, to meet M Butterfly’s author, David Henry Hwang. Back in November, I’d e-mailed his agent so that Hwang would know his play had been closed down in China. Hwang replied graciously, thanking me for my fortitude and endeavour and offering to buy me dinner if ever he passed through.

Hwang is slight and well-groomed, shiny and dapper, as if he were his own action doll. This is his first trip to mainland China, a literary tour to promote his corpus of Sino-centric work, and particularly his latest play,Yellowface. After his Q&A he greets me warmly and before I can mention the closure, he tells me I’m famous. “Ah, it’s you. They all want to know about you, the guy who got closed down. It was the only question I was asked in Beijing. You must be the most famous guy in China”. I tell him that things have, mercifully, been quiet since the closure; that, on reflection, I want nothing to prevent me travelling back to China one day with my son, who was born in a storm of tranquillity a week after the shutdown.

Hwang is pretty happy about the publicity I fancy. Isn’t it every playwright’s fantasy to be closed down? How often does that happen these days? We pose for some pictures, share a glass of wine, and go our ways; he to continue his tour of China, me to leave the country in search of a more serene freedom.

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