Wednesday, May 30, 2007

REVIEW: Cosi Fan Tutte (RDS Concert Hall, Dublin)

Gavin Quinn, a founding member of PanPan, easily one of the country’s most mercurial and inventive theatre companies, seems like a sound creative choice by Opera Ireland to direct Cosi Fan Tutte.

Last year, Quinn finally completed an elaborate plan to co-produce a version of Playboy of the Western World with a Chinese company. In Mandarin. After which, a dip into Italian for Mozart’s fizzy, but unapologetically unenlightened opera should present no great hurdle.

As it happens, Quinn’s production is every bit as playful as could be expected, though something short of an anarchic assault on the operatic form. The action has been updated to the present, or, to a certain vision of it: Quinn’s boys all like football, and are happy to bare their bums, or serve as UN Peacekeepers; his girls like boozing and shopping, and indulge in pilates only under protest.

The RDS Concert Hall lets Quinn, all the same, mess around, just a little. The action wanders off the stage occasionally, to stroll through the book-lined hall, the lovers picking out volumes to read, or Guglielmo (Josef Wagner) to ply his wares flirtatiously with the crowd, walking among them and throwing silky pink underwear to the occasional lucky soul.

Bruno Schwengl’s set, too, is economic, but with plenty of smart good humour. The small stage of the RDS is clearly not the place for extravagant gestures, but the production gets plenty of mileage out of enormous chunky versions of the letters L O V & E, which become bartops and seats, beds, hammocks and stages at various times.

Performances from Mary Bowen (Dorabella) and Sara Galli (Fiordiligi) are particularly appealing, with their almost slapstick physical antics contrasting brightly with the precision and sweetness of their voices.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gavin Quinn's Mandarin Playboy


First off, the question that must, of course, be uppermost in the minds of readers here: Tell me now and tell me true: what is the Mandarin for “loy”?

Why Tie Qiao, of course.

It took nearly four years for Pan Pan’s latest production to see the light of day. But then, heading to China to produce a Mandarin version of The Playboy of the Western World, always sounded like a courageous idea. By the time the company had been through no less than seven different Chinese partners, commissioned a new translation of the play and found somewhere to perform in Beijing, the years had just flown by.

“We always thought it would be a bit of an adventure,” says the show’s director, Gavin Quinn. “So we decided to just stick with it and not worry too much about the timescale.”

In China, the adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is enshrined in the idea of Guan Xi, according to Quinn. “It means contacts. And without contact there is no way to do anything there.”

But even with Guan Xi, way to first night paved with many traps. “One of our partners were originally very happy with us when they thought we were a kind of Riverdance outfit. Someone who was going to make them millions with some sort of global touring product,” says Quinn. “But when they realised we were doing things on a very small scale, they lost interest. They even told off the person who had put us into contact with them.”

Working on a small scale, had some advantages in China however. The complex business of securing the correct licences, permits and permissions, the company discovered, would be much harder if they were not an experimental theatre company. Had Pan Pan’s Playboy played to more than 1000 people, it would have been considered a “mass media” event and received intense official scrutiny.

Eventually, however, a partner was found and the company set about the old business of finding a venue, casting and even creating that new translation of Synge’s story of patricide in the West of Ireland. Synge has never been big in China, it seems, and the only existing translation was from the 1930s, and written in a classical Chinese that even the younger Chinese actors could hardly read. The answer was to make a new one, one which, according to Quinn, was steeped in the street language of cotemporary Beijing.

The action of the new version happens on the outskirts of the capital, where the old China of the country meets the new China of the cities, and where a rather unusual type of business operates: “It’s set in a whore-dressers, which is a kind of hairdressers that is also a brothel…it is usually identifiable by pictures of feet outside. And, lots of village girls in miniskirts hanging around, not cutting hair.”

As a company that works exclusively in experimental styles – for example, producing a show in which 100 actors were stationed in 100 little rooms and each visited, for a chat, by one member of the audience – Pan Pan found the rather, er, traditional flavour of actor training in China, something of a hurdle.

“They don’t really have freelance actors. Most actors would be attached to a company, or else on contracts to make TV shows. They are taught a kind of old fashioned Stanislavski style of acting, they learn to sing and dance, and it can take seven years or more to finish the course.”

“We had to convince the actors that we wanted was to see something of themselves in the performances. The older actors could adapt to that more easily, but the younger actors thought we wanted the very standard type of very earnest American TV acting. They found it all much more difficult.”

After performing the show in Chinas earlier this year, the challenge now is to install the Mandarin-speaking version of Synge’s classic in Ireland. The job has involved re-translating the show back into English for the subtitles often using the playwright’s original language, but also providing a Chinese glossary for the Dublin audience.

“I just realised when I wrote an explanation of one term – Lei Feng – it took me a whole paragraph to explain….”

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