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When Absurd turns ridiculous

Waiting for Godot was performed in China with elements of traditional Peking Opera - dance, mime and music.

india Updated: May 09, 2006 18:09 IST

Irish Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett's play

Waiting for Godot

has been performed in China before, but never with elements taken from traditional Peking Opera - including dance, mime, music and song.

Playing to a full house in Shanghai - a city that often shuns the arts in its quest for wealth - one character wore a painted mask lifted straight from Peking Opera, a highly stylised theatrical form that first evolved more than 300 years ago.

"I first came up with the idea five years ago. It's not real Peking Opera, of course. I just added certain elements. But a few years hence, this could be a new art form," said Wu Hsing-Kuo, the Taiwanese director and composer who also played a lead part.

During the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, the government obliged people to renounce China's ancient culture, and there was scant access to Western books.

Drama was limited to highly politicised, Communist Party-approved dogma, usually featuring guns, singing soldiers and a blaze of red revolutionary banners.

But Wu's three-hour production follows two growing trends in today's China - the rediscovery of its pre-communist past, and a new connection with Western art forms as hundreds of thousands of Chinese students travel to Europe and the United States annually. 

 Peking Opera Masks

Wu was taught Peking Opera from the age of 11 in Taipei, then studied Chinese acting methods at university in Taiwan.

"It's very difficult to put the two together, to keep traditional forms but be up-to-date," he told Reuters the morning after the show's final night.


One function of the Peking Opera content is to enrich the humour of the play tracing the quarrels and comic antics of two tramps as they await, at the edge of a forest, the arrival of the mysterious and unseen Godot. The leading double-act spin their over-length sleeves in unison, or sing a duet.

"In Peking Opera, clowns were only funny and never sad - there was none of Beckett's absurdity there," said Wu.

Now, however, even Western clowns are slowly working their way into Chinese forms. The Shanghai Theatre Academy recently held a course for students under the respected French performer Fabiola Gonzalez.

Gu Yi'an, a professor at the academy, organised the sessions. As a young boy, his neighbour was an ex-choreographer at Beijing Dance Theatre, and had trained at a Russian ballet school.

"In two or three days, he made me look like I'd trained for five or six years," Gu told Reuters, as his students donned red noses and comical costumes.

The result was that Gu won a scholarship at the age of 18 to study in Paris under French mime-artist Jacques Lecoq.

But the Cultural Revolution was underway in China, and Gu was obliged to perform to soldiers with the renowned Huajutuan drama troupe, in revolutionary communist plays. He did so for three years before coming home.

"I tell the students that the director is inside them, and that the clown is inside them. I tell them to be flexible as water - most have only this beautiful bourgeois mask when they arrive," he said.

Fabiola Gonzalez, who speaks Chinese and works full-time as an actor and clown in theatres throughout France, led the course.

"They still need to learn to show their weaknesses to play the clown properly - they are too young for that. They are good at imitation but still learning improvisation," said Gonzalez.

"But the Chinese are playful, which helps a lot. I think clowns could take off in a very short time in China," she said.

And the students are keen.

"You didn't have these kinds of clowns in traditional China, although I saw them on TV when I was seven, and liked them then," said Li Guangxu, a 23-year old theatre student on the course.


But not all hybrid theatre works, and many western forms fall flat when a local spin is attempted, as a recent production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms showed.

Between scenes, a young man decked out in glittery clothing appeared onstage to sing pop songs about love while images from the play flashed up on the screen, adding a modern, low-brow Chinese flavour to the 81-year-old American play, which is based on a tragedy penned in ancient Greece.

The drama, about a young and ambitious lady who marries a mean widower but falls for his son, usually involves less weeping, shouting, crying out and falling over than the Shanghai production employed.

Often the strains of a pop song could be heard in the background during the love scenes.

"It was so terrible it was actually funny," said Lili Ma, a young publisher who was in the audience. "I never supposed I would laugh while watching a tragedy."