On Stage Near Shanghai

Wuzhen Theatre Festival
A scene from Stan Lai’s Chinese-language play A Dream Like a Dream, performed at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival in April

Last May, my wife and I traveled to China in order to spend two weeks at the international Wuzhen Theatre Festival. I had previously been appointed honorary chairman of the event, which also included among its presentations the final play in my Shakespeare trilogy. 2013 is the festival’s inaugural year, and for the purpose a philanthropic businessman with advanced architectural tastes named Chen Xianghong had funded a 1,200-seat glass and filigree theater called the Grand, as well as subsidizing the renovation of four additional facilities. Although Chen is a former Communist official, there was little government presence in the project apart from its stamp of approval.

Wuzhen is a picturesque theme park near Shanghai on a Venice-like canal, which draws about six million tourists a year. It has lively storefronts that display such ancient Chinese practices as silk-work weaving and foot-binding. It also boasts very clean air and a number of elegant four-star hotels with luxurious accommodations and immaculate service. In these places you cannot drop a pea pod or a crumb of bread without it instantly being whisked up by a vigilant domestic and deposited in a plastic bag.

If this oasis sounds different from the China we’ve been hearing about in the media, with its contaminated chickens, floating pigs, poisoned air, corruption, cyberespionage, abuse of the human rights of political dissidents, inhumane prison treatment, and, most recently, rural relocation, well it is. The festival leaders were obviously more interested in displaying a different face to the world, particularly their pride in Chinese theater artists and their curiosity about American and European cultures. And while virtually nobody in our group knew a word of Chinese besides “Thank you” and “Hello,” a lot of the Chinese visitors spoke flawless English. True, the local plays we saw were hardly activist. The only political criticism I heard was at least half a century old, directed against the Japanese in World War II and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Anticipating the officially warming political relations between the newly elected Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and President Obama, the festival’s Chinese leaders displayed friendship, cooperation, and courtesy toward us visiting Westerners. (There was also an almost desperate eagerness on the part of young people to get photographs of us on their iPhones, preferably with our arms around their shoulders.)

Wuzhen has ambitions to become a major international theatrical event like Avignon or Edinburgh, and, judging from its first season, it will almost certainly realize them. The initial program featured a mix of six productions equally divided between East and West, plus panels, street mimes, carnivals, and lively student competitions. Coming from Europe was Inside the Skeleton of the Whale, a piece conceived by the Grotowski disciple Eugenio Barba and his…

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