Stage production on homosexuality tests tolerance on mainland
Eric Abrahamsen in Beijing
A play about homosexuality at the weekend marked the mainland's first public stage performance dealing with the issue.
Donggong Xigong, translated as East Palace, West Palace - is the tale of homosexual writer A-Lan and his relationship with a police officer. Audiences are familiar with the plot because it is based on a 1996 film of the same name by sixth-generation director Zhang Yuan . Zhang and writer Wang Xiaobo penned the screenplay.
The film won acclaim at the 1997 Cannes Festival and led to the central government formally outlawing the production of independent films on the mainland. Beijing had placed Zhang under house arrest and confiscated his passport earlier in the year, but friends smuggled the film out so it could be shown at the festival.
Wang later adapted the movie into a play and a novel. Restrictions on the story have been relaxed, but the weekend production staged by the Three Oranges theatre troupe faced considerable obstacles.
'We went to every big theatre in town,' said Xavier Froment, French director and co-founder of the Three Oranges. 'They all turned us down, saying they were worried about what might happen, and they didn't want the trouble.'
The production, involving three Chinese actors and a few props, found a theatre at Peking University. But shortly after rehearsals began, Froment received word that the university's administrators objected to the play and the group would need to find another theatre.
Despite the frustration, Froment was able to secure a private venue in the 798 Art District, where most of Beijing's edgier arts people have found venues for their work.
But that was not the end of their difficulties. Permission for a commercial performance had to be obtained from those who held the copyright: Zhang and Wang's widow, Li Yinhe who is a leading scholar on homosexuality in Chinese society.
Professor Li granted permission, but Zhang did not. This meant the Three Oranges could not charge for their performance.
Despite the repeated setbacks, the play was well received, with nearly 150 people braving heavy rain to squeeze into the small theatre for Saturday night's performance. After the show, questions from the audience were lively, focusing on Guo Chao , the actor who portrayed A-Lan, and his interpretation of the role.
'I'm not gay, but I know some gay people,' said Guo. 'I don't look down on gays, but I don't have much to do with them either.'
Froment is pleased with the production, though he has hopes for something more official. He has just learned that under Chinese laws, he needs permission only from one of the joint copyright holders to hold a commercial performance. Now he plans to stage the play again on a larger scale as part of a city-wide gay culture festival planned for October.
'It should be very successful,' he said.