Edinburgh Fringe 2017
We enter to the stage being filled with hand drawn notes on a wall and poignant 21st Century notes being committed to a phone. These entries about getting ready for the Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world are mixed between the present day technology and a story that goes back over 50 years to a time that seems more innocent but also more deadly. From the beginning of an actor making his preparations, we are taken through the state police coming to get Lao She, a man with a massive reputation whose work would grace such a festival. Unfortunately, his inability to say what he felt without being “held to account for it” is shown through a series of events that shock still. His words twisted, his innocence corrupted and his fate sealed. Finally he took his own life and with it a legacy that has been sanitised and presented back to the Chinese people since that fateful drowning that took his life; the official version as suicide, an unofficial version as state sponsored murder.
Like the play, the truth is something that is neither simple nor straightforward. Sink takes some thought as it weaves its narrative in and between the present day and the life of the great man. It is no less effective because it makes you think as the themes stand out and the theatricality of the piece is a strength.
Lao She may have had his image sanitised and his reputation restored with a teahouse, like the name of his most famous work, now offered to tourists just off Tianamen Square – I have been and very nice it is too – but the work which gave his people the image of them as people remains a beacon of how he worked – honestly and thoughtfully in the city he loved.
The performers bring a modern approach to the life of Lao She that works extremely well and I was captivated by their ability to keep me trying to remember things about Lao She’s life that I once read. It intrigues and takes you with it throughout. The way in which Lao She’s family are convinced to denounce him is particularly good as a set piece as it reminds you of how simply they were terrified into giving him up; just like the Cultural Revolution managed through the Red Guards with so many families.
But before we begin to feel smug and point fingers at other nations this was also the time of the McCarthyite pogroms in the USA where such devastating critiques of it like The Crucible, gave us an insight to the effect of what being accused meant for the one in the spotlight. Whilst Sink cannot claim to have achieved the heights of The Crucible it has managed to make the themes of a similar time but far more oppressive regime more understandable. The writing is crisp and clear with an authorial voice that never stints from making us see the un comfortable. The performances are deep and comprehensive without having to shout form the rooftops over injustice, we get the point. By being understated it becomes highly effecting.
The set has enough of the bare nature of the time to be convincing and the theatre arts were effective in supporting this tale with lighting being used effectively, especially in the presence of Lao She.
Overall it is a lovely little piece of theatre which is using theatricality to shine a spotlight on the worst phase of a government that continues to rule in similar fashion. It is not a cry for freedom but a reminder that excess does not just come from having the freedom to create but from the ability to crush it.