When David Cameron breezed into Beijing in 2010 banging the drum for UK Inc. and announcing "the biggest ever celebration of British arts held in China (highlighting) the best of UK creativity...(including) exhibitions, concerts and performances across the country" in the shape of UK Now, I was a little dubious.
The line-up sounded impressive; an eclectic mix of the UK's finest talent drafted into the Middle Kingdom in 2012, sharing with our Chinese cousins a little of what makes the UK such a renowned hub for Western creativity and culture in this, our flagship year of glorious Olympiana.
But what would the Chinese care? Would we really see the hoards descend on a Mario Testino exhibition, earnestly nodding along to each exhibit or watching performers from Random Dance Company hurl themselves around a black box? It may sound as appealing to your average Chinese as enduring 4 hours of Peking Opera to the likes of us.
Would anyone actually go who wasn't a) an expat thirsty for a taste of home or b) an open-minded student? Preaching to the converted much? Well, ever the cynic, I have been royally proven wrong. UK Now has produced an explosion of creativity, rolling out a mix of entertaining, inspiring, informative UK arts which have reached an audience of millions and produced several inspiring collaborations. Sadly it's due to close at the end of November.
I've been along to a number of events, most recently last week to the brilliantly energetic Blind Summit's performance of The Table, at the Pioneer Theatre. Probably best known on an international level for their recent tenure under Danny Boyle as puppetry consultants for the Olympics Opening Ceremony, I was lucky enough to meet the company, including artistic Director's Nick Barnes and Mark Down, after the show on Wednesday night.
Barnes admitted to being "terrified" at the prospect of bringing the piece to China, conceding that he "just didn't know how the audiences were going to take it". I understand his concerns as gauging how an audience so unaccustomed to seeing anything so understated or multi-layered would react is difficult. This is performance in its simplest form, yet also at its most complex; the audience invited to engage with the story of Exodus and the character of Moses, while also being guided through a masterclass in Bunraku puppetry.
The Table tells the story of Moses' last 12 hours, all conveyed, in their words, through a "little twat on a table". Expertly controlled by three operators, including Barnes and Down themselves- the latter impeccably voicing the little man, Barnes' concerns were unjustified as the (majority Chinese) crowd roared with laughter throughout. This, despite the fact that the piece was packed with many nuances in character and language distinctly British in flavour: a Basil Fawltyesque march around the table, vomiting over the side, dragging water from a well (a particular favourite).
No stranger to China, Barnes first came here in 1996 and spent some time in Dali in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. It was here that he met his stimulus for the lauded Mr. China's Son, its titular character a renowned English teacher who lived through the Cultural Revolution. The trip also took Barnes to the Chinese capital and returning today, some 16 years hence, "Beijing is unrecognisable" to him. The Table tours to Shanghai, then Guangzhou- and back to Shanghai through November 4thbut I'm concerned how the show's star will be transported- in a miniature coffin perhaps?
UK Now has achieved some spectacular things since April and brought some engaging, appealing, subversive and cutting edge pieces to these shores. As the festival draws to a close it certainly isn't losing momentum, with further Edinburgh Fringe events coming up in Shanghai, along with Gecko Theatre's Missing screened at Beijing's MOMA this week. Then it's the turn of the National Theatre of Scotland's collaboration with Citizen Theatre's Monsters in the Hall (31 Oct-3 Nov). Other events include stage@Leeds The Sun is Not Enough in Chengdu and Shanghai and finally Subtlemob's As If it Were the Last Time at the end of November in Xiamen. After all this I have to admit I'm finding it hard to wish I wasn't in the UK now.
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