Richmond Theatre

Richmond Theatre

Image by MacP2007

Daniel Nelson

The Richmond Theatre became a bit of Hong Kong for two nights when it staged Datong: The Chinese Utopia, a three-act opera about a Chinese philosopher and his pioneering daughter.

The pre-show foyer hubbub - complete with promotional knick-knack handouts, lest we forgot Hong Kong is a trading centre as well as home to a thriving Arts Festval - was a coming together of Chinese expats in UK and colonial "re-treads" for whom time in the Chinese territory was a last hurrah before retirement in Surrey.

They subsequently watched a modern opera about China, set aboard a liner on its way to Malaysia in 1901 in which 17-year-old Kang Tongbi talks about her ideals with a China-disparaging English missionary; at the US State department when Kang Tongbi and her Confucian reformist father Kang Youwei press President Roosevelt to end discrimination against Chinese migrants to the US; and amidst the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution in 1969, with Kang Tongbi on her deathbed and her granddaughter frienziedly sawing up her high-heeled shoes that will otherwise be a target of the Red Guards - an ironic counterpoint to the first scene in which the English missionary scorns a nation that lauds the cruelty of foot-binding.

That's not the only ironic counterpoint, because the Cultural Revolution firestorm picks up and makes a mockery of the chorus' earlier-scene insistence on the importance of "harnessing the chaos". And that leads directly to the central question: did China reach the crazed destruction of the Cultural Revolution ("Revolution is no crime!") because of The Way of Confucius or because it failed to follow Confucian way of thought?

It's a meaty meal, and it's skilfully sung, played and staged, with some delightful touches, such as the playful twist on a Beatles song and the dramatic picture-book framing of the Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled from "behind the curtain". And though the subject matter is absorbing, relevant and new for a British audience, there's no getting away from the fact that it's long on talk and short on action.

Nevertheless, thanks to the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Richmond Theatre for a great opportunity to open minds and ears and see what otherwise most of us would not see. I hope more Hong Kong Festival offerings will come our way.

* Datong: The Chinese Utopia was performed at the Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1QJ on 27-28 July.

blog comments powered by Disqus