I can’t tell you what this play was about – the artist asked me not to

This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes a moving and risky autobiographical work, and an exquisitely rendered production of one of the world’s most enduring plays.

Made in China 2.0 ★★★★
Malthouse Theatre, until March 19

A trailer for Made in China 2.0 features Chinese director and actor Wang Chong 王翀 filming himself in the dark. He holds a handheld video camera up to his face, the gesture reminiscent of a hostage video, as he explains: “According to a contract I signed with Malthouse Theatre, I cannot disclose any content in the show. Otherwise, I’m going to be in trouble.”

Wang Chong performs in Made in China 2.0.Credit:Tamarah Scott

How does one market something unmarketable? Chong is billed as a “provocateur”, the play a “personal manifesto” for art-making. On the tram to the play, I pass a billboard advertisement featuring Chong, larger than life, with the phrase: “Up close and personal with one of China’s most provocative exports”. It’s hard to know before stepping foot in the theatre whether this show will be a gimmick, or a truly risky work of political activism.

The play opens on Chong amidst a sparse set. Below a hanging rectangle comprised of 44 sheets of white A4 paper sits a table, chair, a plastic toy, and two video cameras atop two tripods.

Chong begins in earnest, asking the audience to tell their friends about the show after they leave the theatre – but pleads that they do not disclose the content. “If the Chinese government finds out, I will be in deep shit.” The audience laughs. “I’m risking my balls to make this happen.” The danger seems legitimate, though around me, the audience laughs again. During his moving, hour-long performance, he worries about his ability to return safely home to his family in Beijing.

Made in China 2.0 is a moving, hour-long performance.Credit:Tamarah Scott

How does one review the unreviewable? If, for Chong’s safety, I am not to share the content of the play, then let me write about this laughter. Last night, I was one of the few people of colour in the audience; it was filled with the usual Malthouse opening night crowd. Chong speaks to such an audience while always aware of distant yet more powerful and more cruel listeners. So, there were moments of brilliance (which I can’t mention) that shed light on the flows of collective memory; the possibility of a single defiant voice; what it means for one’s actions to align with one’s conscience. The strongest parts of his performance (which I can’t mention) were Chong’s heart-rending autobiographical admissions. But the complexities of his doubled audience meant that he couldn’t trust his listeners to recall easily accessible news or historic events. At points, it felt like he was breaking a story that had already been told.

Made in China 2.0 contains moments of brilliance and highlights the possibility of a single defiant voice.Credit:Tamarah Scott

This seems the problem of the diasporic provocateur; art in one place might not be as provocative as it is in another. In Australia, what happens when art and political activism collide? Polemics defy nuance. It feels quite absurd to assign stars to Chong’s courage.

In the end, I can’t really tell you what I feel about it. He literally asked me not to. One thing is clear: you should go to this play, and make up your own mind.
Reviewed by Leah Jing McIntosh

The Crucible ★★★★½
Arthur Miller, NT Live, select cinemas from March 4

Rain. Torrential rain. An elemental deluge, with no discernible human form in the darkness. It is a Biblical event, or a futuristic one, summoning through artifice a display of natural power that might drown civilisations or centuries, and when it stops, finally, we are in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692.

A scene from NT Live’s production of The Crucible. Credit:Johan Persson

The lights come up on a spartan, elegantly realised period set. Eerie harmonies rise from a distant service; Abigail is slapped by her uncle and dragged away for laughing in church. Then, a chorus of girls in pink pinafores steps forward to perform the overture, starkly abbreviated, which begins the most celebrated American play of the 20th century.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will resonate long after we’re all dead, and this NT Live production offers exquisitely rendered insight into its enduring social tragedy.

For the playwright, the work was a response to McCarthyism and the paranoid scapegoating of the Cold War. Watching from 2023, what gets ruthlessly exposed are layers of oppression, nightmares of history from which we’re trying to awake.

NT Live’s production of The Crucible offers exquisitely rendered insight into the play’s enduring social tragedy.Credit:Johan Persson

Ensemble performance establishes a febrile atmosphere, with power dynamics and character expressed at a cellular level. The cascade of blame in the first act rushes down the social ladder, first the pinched hollowness of Reverend Parris (Nick Fletcher), wearing patriarchal authority like a dwarf in giant’s robes, down into the one private encounter between Abigail and John Proctor – a standoff of piteous fascination.

Erin Doherty and our own Brendan Cowell charge their performances not simply with repressed desire but the shadow of the #MeToo movement. When Abigail claims Proctor “took me from my sleep and put knowledge in my heart”, and Proctor condescendingly calls her “child”, we’re genuinely left to wonder whether either of them is speaking figuratively.

The disparity in power and age is flagrant. There’s a strong sense – in Abigail’s frantic, vengeful wildness, and Proctor stonily pulling up the drawbridge between them – of traumatic bonding disguised as obsessive love.

Scapegoating spreads like a disease down a social hierarchy until it reaches Tituba (Sophia Brown), a slave from Barbados, who under horrific pressure lobs the first accusation. Furiously revealing the truth about Parris, her master, she daringly inverts her oppression. The Devil says to her: “Look! I have white people belong to me.”

Brendan Cowell and Rachelle Diedericks star in The Crucible.Credit:Johan Persson

It’s a piercing moment among many. Freedoms are wrenched from extremity, but the traditional locus of them – Proctor’s stoic refusal to be complicit in evil – doesn’t overwhelm others, from Mary Warren’s (Rachelle Diedericks) insolent reversal of her servitude to the tragically belated compassion of the well-meaning Reverend Hale (Fisayo Akinade).

Every performance hits its mark, and the production is more potent for its faithfulness and intense focus on delivering pity and awe.

Audiences are left to draw modern parallels and you don’t have to look far to find them. It’s no coincidence that Waleed Aly talked of “excommunication” or “a morality of brute force” in his discussion of artists boycotting Bluesfest last week. And you only have to read Van Badham’s QAnon and On – a disturbing investigation into the global conspiracy movement – to realise that the demonology of early modern Europe isn’t as dead as we’d like to believe.

The ghosts of Salem are with us yet.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead

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