The Cast of LU XUN Blossoms. Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre.
Luminato has finally brought LU XUN Blossoms, a collaboration between Theatre Smith-Gilmour and The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, to our shores. The two companies first collaborated on a production of the show in Shanghai in 2007, followed by a tour to five cities in China. Having seen most of Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s shows in the past decade, we’d been waiting some time to see this co-production brought to Canada.
The show is based on five stories written by Lu Xun, widely considered one of the most influential writers in Chinese modern literature. The author, essayist, and poet is the show’s narrator, and these stories are his recollections of figures that made an impression on him as a boy and young man: his childhood nurse, a hapless servant woman in his uncle’s home, a down-on-his-luck bar patron of the tavern where he had his first job. It’s a bilingual show, in that all six performers, for the most part, speak in their native language (Michele Smith in English with her still heavy Parisian accent), and screens to either side of the stage provide a translation, though they’re hardly necessary to follow the plot.
Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s signature style, based on the physical theatre methods taught at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, and combined with the Chinese opera background of the visiting performers, is employed with pinpoint accuracy and considerable flair by all six actors in the ensemble. With no set, and little in the way of props (save for a few hats and wraps), they suggest all manner of places and “action” pieces; two actors crouch down to become imposing lions flanking the front door of Lu Xun’s uncle’s home, and a rushed rickshaw ride is an early highlight of the show.
The drawback with such impressive physical wizardry—and there is much of it in this show—is that after a while, the audience can start to take it for granted; they forget that it’s all being created by the performers, and accept the world that’s being created. When that happens, it’s the story and characters that keep the audience attentive, and LU XUN Blossoms suffers somewhat in the long run by being frontloaded with shorter, more fanciful and humorous sequences. As the show progresses, mirroring the titular author’s own maturing, it becomes more somber and reflective, and some in the audience became disinterested (we noted a few audience members slipping out after the hour mark of the 95 minute performance).
As a show, LU XUN Blossoms has much to recommend it (which we’re doing): physical theatre of this calibre is rare indeed. A bit of rejigging of the order of the scenes to dole out the humour and lighter fare may have kept every bum in its seat at the performance we attended, but we’re of two minds about suggesting such a change; this isn’t slapstick clowning, but elaborate storytelling, and the company shouldn’t have to pander to those expecting comedy throughout. Still, all the laughs in the first few sequences in the show might create unrealistic expectations that the show will be so throughout; it’s worth bearing in mind that the stories, and the combined companies, are intent on exploring several aspects of the human condition, and not all of them will tickle the funny bone.