A THEATRE IN WUHAN
Back of the auditorium…
“What was that?” exclaims Roz semi-hysterically. A hint of dread ripples beneath her calm, collected exterior.
“Where?” replies Nathan instantly, suddenly a sentinel standing to attention. Like a brave, wise, old brown bear he rises from his slumber.
“There, did you see that?” It’s not panic in her voice now, more disbelief. She is doubting even her own eyes – she needs Nathan (of all people) to validate her sanity (which is not an enviable position to be in…).
“No. What was it?” Nathan is shaking now like a kitten in a freezing puddle. His eyes widen like a pug; his nostrils flare like John Travolta’s dancing slacks.
“There was a ferret in the lighting box, a wild ferret!”
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – welcome to Wuhan. It turns out that the lighting box was in fact home to a wild ferret who, from time to time comes to say hello. Matt (our Company Stage Manager) has named him Keith. At this stage in our adventure in China I am not that surprised to hear this story. This is a country where anything can happen and I’m loving that.
We have just pulled out of Wuhan train station, a huge building housing two dozen bullet train terminals. The roof flows overhead like the underside of a giant tropical leaf, veiny and wiry. It’s impressive. Francois sums it up well, “Pretty amazing, huh?”
We’re flying along at 300 km/hour again, this time heading to Shenzhen, a place Gecko have visited before but I have not.
Wuhan was, like I imagine most of China is, fascinating to behold. Our lonely planet told us it was like three cities in one and it certainly felt gargantuan to us. The journey from the train station to the hotel takes us through the beautiful, shiny train station doors, onto the bus, then through what appears to be very poor outskirts to the city. Buildings look deserted but I am pretty sure they are not. Every scrap of land is farmed and worked and used. Older buildings, small and decrepit, form villages which seem to mark an older way of life, before the days of skyscrapers and Starbucks. Grandparents and children make up a lot of the population in these outer areas, we are told, as younger workers head to the cities to make money for their families. Truthfully it’s difficult to see if anyone is living in most of the villages we pass. Despite the obvious, almost Western glitz and glamour of Shanghai, it is here in Wuhan where I have been most aware of the steep divide between China’s mega rich and its waves of hard working, poorer communities. Village after village lines the outskirts, all the same – houses with ramshackle solar panels fixed to rooftops, presumably the only source of affordable power. Settlements drained of their youth by the pull of the mega cities. It’s another culture shock.
Then the city hits. Carved in two by the might of the Yangtze River, it feels like it will just go on forever and ever. It’s so deeply grey here, I feel like my understanding of the word grey has changed because of Wuhan. It’s a concrete jungle which sprawls and spills out on every street corner. Wiry metallic vines climb out of windows and wrap themselves around generators and air conditioning units. A river of concrete carves its way up and over the roads to form huge pedestrian spaghetti junctions. I go for a run and find myself totally twisted up on myself, unable to find my way out of the maze of commuter routes. In the summer the heat in Wuhan is said to be intense and I can only imagine what that would do to smell of the city. It’s the smell of people living and working, the smell of standing water and kitchen scraps. It’s bracing but I think I’m used to it. Within seconds of the bus ride in the city you are likely to see someone selling a handful of freshly killed chickens, someone fixing a moped, someone driving up the road the wrong way, 10 cars honking their horns, a team of street sweepers armed with brilliant branch-brooms and someone spitting. Spitting is a big thing in China – despite the signs asking people not to. I have to say, I am still loving being here. As I mentioned before, I am not a big fan of cities in general but there is something about the calm chaos of China that makes these communities seem somehow more human… it’s a harmony thing that I can’t quite put my finger on yet.
Chris Evans remarked that he is surprised how chilled China is. “Food takes its time, commuters take their time. It’s as if the Chinese people (who on the whole seem to be very happy and content) have collectively realised that there is no point rushing!”
Our first show in Wuhan was Matt Hales’s first show without me helping him through his track. Naturally he smashed it and is now a fully functioning part of the MISSING team. It’s a huge relief for me as I get to watch the show again and actually do what I have come out here to do: help the performers make the show great. Matt, as a vegetarian, has struggled a little to find food that is safe to eat, especially as we tend to find ourselves eating in places where no one speaks any English. Matt has come up with two ways of combatting hunger. 1) Pizza. He loves it. Wherever we are he has an eye out for pizza places; he says they are really expensive and not that nice, but they are keeping him alive… 2) He has asked Maggie to make him a lanyard with the words “I am a Vegetarian” on one side and “Can you point out the nearest Pizza?” on the other (or so she says – she could have written anything on there really…). Anyway, he wears it all the time, along with a pretty amazing beaver hat. As you can imagine, he’s getting some looks – the locals love him. But he isn’t hungry anymore.
Ooh oooh, a flock of cranes just flew past! Amazing, I wondered if we would see any white cranes on this trip. I can tick that off my list…
We’re in the hills again now, it’s very beautiful, misty and iconically asian (mental note – must look up what a flock of cranes are called… thinking about it they are more likely to have been egrets… white cranes are pretty rare aren’t they?).
Of Wuhan, Chris Evans says…
“The city I enjoyed the most was Wuhan. I still don’t know who in the company is the culprit, but let’s say that the universe wrote in giant letters ‘Happy Birthday’ on the roof of some random nearby rooftop, so that on the morning of my turning 30, I would read it from my hotel window on the 15th floor. It was great to share my birthday with people I love dearly (and see the most often) in a night of karaoke, drinking, and quitting smoking. Oh no wait, that was just me.”
The show in Wuhan feels more like the show we all know. I really enjoy the final show in particular, it’s probably in my top 10 MISSING performances ever. It was firey. I think this show is at its best when it’s a little dangerous, a little unexpected – I use the word ‘prickly’ and the performers often look at me like I am nuts (they are right of course). The audience were with us from the off on both nights here. We were told before that Shanghai audiences are more open-minded than the other cities we would visit. But I think the show really resonated with our audience here. Perhaps it was because the performers had recovered from the travel, or perhaps it was to do with the space. One Chinese audience member was in tears after the show and Roz sat with her a while as she talked of having a heavy heart thinking about her own life and being so grateful for being able to see theatre from the UK again. We also had several audience members who came to both nights of our performances in Wuhan as well a group of Gecko fans who had seen THE OVERCOAT years ago, one of whom told us, “MISSING was worth the wait and was much better than THE OVERCOAT”. I agree. Chris Swain isn’t sure, but that’s because he is a fool. I forgive him almost instantly for his error.
There is a warmth and excitement in the audiences here, the Chinese people we have met really do love theatre! Before we arrived Tim Crouch sent us a lovely message saying, “We have warmed China up for you, Gecko.” Perhaps that is true. I can’t wait to ask him how his (brilliant) ‘I Malvolio’ went down here though, with the speech barrier and the cultural differences – particularly in terms of humour. I am sure it would have been fascinating to perform such a wordy piece here, and with all his skills as a performer I have no doubt it would have worked, but there is something fascinating about the way theatrical communication works in this part of the world.