6 shows to see at Wuzhen Theatre Festival 2016

China's most exciting theatre festival is back

Maleonn's Papa's Time Machine
Now in its fourth year, the Wuzhen Theatre Festival continues to go from strength to strength. This seminal event was ostensibly organised to breathe life into a renovated water town (a short trip from Shanghai) and to create a privately run arts festival that flew under government radar. But Wuzhen’s true aspirations were grand from day one – to become the Edinburgh or Avignon of the East. In other words, to be a festival to plan your China trips around. Or for. And it may get there yet.

To the organisers, the youth playwriting competition, the discussion forums, the specially invited plays and the outdoor carnival hold equal importance, but weekend visitors will most likely enjoy the entertainment. Even if you avoid the theatres that range from modern arts cathedrals to converted warehouses, performance is everywhere, and in a glorious setting.
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Stroll over stone bridges and down winding alleys lit by golden lamplight on misty nights, stop for local snacks out of wooden stalls, browse shops of indigo textiles and local ceramics (no bargaining allowed; prices are fixed) – and all the while be surrounded by giant puppets, earnest actors, or Peking opera performers singing their way down the canals.

However, if seats are your thing, here are some strong choices in a solid, mostly English subtitled-programme led by this year’s rotating artistic director Meng Jinghui and honorary chairman Lin Zhaohua.

Meng’s He Had Two Pistols with White and Black Eyes (Fri 14-Sun 16; Tue 18, Thu 19, 6.30pm, 110RMB) is an adaptation of Dario Fo’s work of the same name, a scathing satirical look at modern society done with the director’s signature rock-and-shock style. For his part, Lin premiers his Dr Godot or Six People Searching for the 18th Camel (8pm Fri 14, Sun 16; 2.30pm Sat 15-Sun 16, 100RMB) an adaptation of Dietrich Schwanitz’s story of five mental patients who imagine they are Shaw, Ionesco, Pirandello, Brecht, and Beckett. Festival co-founder Stan Lai’s Writing in Water (7.30pm, Fri 21; 2.30pm Sat 22, 120RMB) is a loftier look at calligraphy, and will be memorable simply because it involves Stan Lai.

As for the invited productions, here are our picks:

Ghosts 2.0

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8.30pm, Thu 13-Fri 14; 95RMB (Chinese; Chinese and English subtitles)
As one of two Henrk Ibsen-inspired plays in the ‘reviving the classics’ section at Wuzhen, director Wang Chong of Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental presents a multi-media look at a family with dark secrets (read: incest). Sent away for his own protection, the adult son returns home to make a film about his own life, and to confront his mysterious past.

Quijote

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7pm, Fri 14-Sun 16; 2.30pm, Sat 15-Mon 17; 60RMB (no lines; no subtitles)
One of several well-reviewed puppet productions being presented at this year’s festival, Valencia-based Bambalina Teatre Practicable’s Quijote brings men and marionettes together to tell the story of Don Quixote, drawing on elements of Spanish culture and human pathos.

Hamlet

7.30pm, Tue 18-Thu 20; 145RMB (English; Chinese and English subtitles)
Founded in 1989, the popular cult band Tiger Lilies went from playing London pubs to the Sydney Opera House, and still do 200 gigs a year. Here they team up with Theatre Republic for Hamlet, where much of the soliloquies, side plots and verbal banter have been transformed into macabre cabaret tunes that can’t help but draw guilty laughter. This may be the festival’s shining star.

Hamletmachine

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4pm and 9pm Fri 21-Sat 22; 120RMB (Cantonese; Chinese and English subtitles)
As part of Wuzhen’s ‘Celebrating Shakespeare’ section, Hong Kong’s Alice Theatre Library presents this acclaimed production of Hamletmachine, the much-performed post-modernist classic by German playwright Heiner Muller. Muller based his work not on clear plotlines but on a series of monologues. Alice Theatre has been marked as Hong Kong’s one-to-watch in avant-garde performance.

Blind

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2.30pm and 8pm, Tue 18-Wed 19; 65RMB (no lines; no subtitles)
This painfully creative piece is inspired by Brazilian dancer and puppeteer Duda Pavia’s traumatic childhood, when an illness struck him temporarily blind. We see him waiting for the healer, and notice his misshapen, lumpy form – a grotesque figure whose visible ‘tumors’ are actually puppets representing his divided personality. As they dance together, the puppets come to life, their actions telling his story. The result is unforgettable.

Papa’s Time Machine

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10pm, Wed 19-Fri 21; 90RMB (no lines; no subtitles)
One of the most talked about festival events, this ambitious project has Shanghai-based visual artist Maleonn creating 12 life-sized puppets which, with 1,200 components each, are so dexterous they can point or hold objects. Inspired by his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Maleonn uses live music and a mechanical cast to tell of a son who builds a time machine to restore his father’s fading memory. This critically lauded show chronicles a heartfelt journey many know too well. But Papa’s Time Machine reminds us love is forever.

Wuzhen Theatre Festival is on at various times and venues from Thursday 13-Saturday 22. See more info on Wuzhen here, and buy tickets here.
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