There are two entrances to London’s Piccadilly Theatre – “circle” and “stalls,” and I was running late. I saw the signs, but not the doors themselves. A moment’s confusion before I got my bearings. I took my ticket from my wallet flashed it at the usher and went in. I was I row 23, seat 21. Easy enough to find-except the rows were lettered A, B. C-no numbers. I approached a second usher for translation. “This is not a ticket for this theatre. It’s in Chinese.”
I started thumbing through my wallet in a somewhat frantic search of the real thing. “I see it, there. May I? Row 3 seat 21.” Problem solved.
I sat down pondering the ways of the universe that had allowed me to make it all the way into the stalls and almost to my seat on a ticket stub from the Chinese Opera in Shanghai.
Somehow this little misadventure had become something of a metaphor for the connections and interrelationship between all the theatre I had seen over the last ten days in two great cities, one brand new and one an old friend half a world apart from each other.
They began with Brecht’s Galileo performed in Mandarin without subtitles in a beautiful production by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, the only national theatre company in Shanghai, directed by Ivan Panteleev of the Deutsches Theatre, Berlin.
It was elegantly spare (the only scenery/props in scene 1: a children’s mobile and a metal chair.) The staging was somewhat formal (as I discovered three nights later, very much in the tradition of the Chinese Opera). The dramatic structure and the textual fidelity were very similar to our production at Irondale with the exception that their decision to perform the seldom seen plague scene moved the plays shift from comic to the seeds of tragedy up three full scenes coloring in a new and interesting way the playing of everything up through the meeting with the Little Monk in scene 8. The influence of the Chinese theatre on the work of Brecht is frequently mentioned in analyses of his writing, but seeing this and a similarly elegant and spare version of Liu Ji Fu Sheng (Six Chapters of
a Floating Life) at the Shanghai Grand Theatre brought it into a sharp and visceral clarity.
Four days later I sat in the Piccadilly in London for my third go round with the Lehman Trilogy. I saw it a year ago at the National, then In New York at the Armory in March, and now in the West End. Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles are still delivering first rate performances-so specific and so alive, the perfect marriage of flawless technique and improvisational spontaneity. As I watched this epic piece of theatre (in which these three actors take on more than thirty roles on a set composed in large part of packing cartons) unfold before me, I was struck by the connections between all three performances, the theatrical language that brought these plays and us the audience together, reaching around the world and through the ages to create a singular, universal form of memorable, interdependent story telling.
In the words of Pete Seeger, “They say this language that we speak is part English, part Latin. And part Greek.”
Or maybe it’s part English, part German and part Chinese.
And that’s what’s on my mind this morning.