Saturday, 16 April 2016

Review The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie

The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie
By Anders Lustgarten 

China's Got Talent

A trip to Dalston's Arcola Theatre to be whisked away to China - at least, the China inhabiting playwright and activist Anders Lustgarten's mind in The Sugar-Coated Bullets of The Bourgeoisie  directed by Steven Atkinson in this new play. 

The title is taken from a 1949 Mao Tse Tung quote warning revolutionaries to guard against "sugar-coated bullets". Although before learning that, TLT and her film buff jalopy did wonder whether it was an echo of Luis Bunuel's French film The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie - yes, we're at it again, seeing French in everything this season!

We follow the fortunes of Chinese hamlet, Rotten Peach, from 1949 to the present day on the multi-layered set designed by Lily Arnold.

A gray stone-fronted, turretted lavish home of the local potentate landlord also opens up to become a military office, a balcony for Chairman Mao and a police cell. Meanwhile on either side  of the stage, smaller sets double up as a ancestral shrine, a factory floor and a fast food outlet in modern China. 

Against this impressive, if squeezed in, backdrop, a cast of eight, some of whom triple and quadruple up, are peasants, the silk-clad landlord, policemen, factory girls, gamers and a hall-of-mirrors cluster of Chairmen Mao (the original played by Siu Hun Li).

From the beginning, we root especially for the mud-brown downtrodden peasant women -  prostitute Lotus Blossom (Anna Leong Brophy), Horseface (Rebecca Boey), daughter of an unfeeling Gao (Sara Houghton) branded by a birthmark with a clubfoot (maybe an oblique reference to foot binding)  and the downtrodden slave-wife  (Alice Hewkin) of peasant Jiao (Stephen Hoo).

And relish the brief reversal and achievement of new rights  when the People's Army in the shape of Xu (Andrew Leung) and Tang (Louise Mai Newberry) sweep into the village.  

While the agitprop influence on a political playwright like Lustgarten (who has both visited China and has a PhD in Chinese studies) is doubtless Bertolt Brecht, TLT's own little movie fan of a  People's Car told her how it called to mind  the 1937 Hollywood movie, "The Good Earth".

Not least because the play sometimes draws together situations in China and Britain, just as the film draws together China and dustbowl America.

This looking at China though a Western filter is implicitly (if slightly disingenously) acknowledged in Lustgarten's introduction to the published play.

We have always found Lustgarten's plays provocatively interesting if flawed, and this felt to us as much an excursion through different Western generations' perceptions of China, as they seek to influence and interfere, as a brisk canter through Chinese history.

While it holds the attention, it's unfortunate that, keeping up with the news, a sudden introduction of an LGBT storyline is almost the final impression left (no pun intended) of the play. Its clumsiness, artistically speaking, almost overwhelming a far cleverer and more insightful finale, a modern perversion of an "I'm Spartacus" moment,  encompassing regional competition and mass production. 

But the basic bones of a fascinating play are there, with an admirably clear summary of one history of a vast country with its global implications.

In an era when many a new work struggles to fill a large stage, it's a rare occasion when TLT wonders if a slightly revamped The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie on a larger stage with a larger cast would solve some of the problems of pacing. And bring a new dimension to an epic struggle and ambitious play. An amber light.

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