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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