Preview: The Dreamer

Gecko Theatre Company blend two ancient writers in one dream

As the world celebrates Shakespeare’s 400th memorial anniversary, forces in China and the UK have teamed together to honour another ancient wordsmith who died the same year. Tang Xianzu is one of China’s greatest writers, best known for his epic quartet of ‘dream’ stories, the most famous being Peony Pavilion. Last month we saw Leeds University’s Tang- Shakespeare project; this month, Britain’s Gecko Theatre Company team up with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre for The Dreamer, a fluid, cross-cultural fantasy making its world premier.

Most literate beings are familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s story of confused lovers, bored fairies, actors seeking rehearsal space, and a love potion that sets everything awry. Fewer know Peony Pavilion, about a lonely noblewoman falling asleep in her garden and dreaming of the perfect man. Upon awaking, she begins pining away for her lost love, but not before leaving a self-portrait. Years later, that same man wanders by, finds her likeness, and is so captivated by her beauty that he – wait for it – digs up her grave and brings her back to life.

But since both stories are about dreams and desperate, unrequited love, director Richard Rusk found common ground. ‘Thematically and emotionally there were interesting overlaps,’ he says, explaining that he had placed a condensed Tang story inside a dream. ‘If you have never heard of Tang Xianzu, The Dreamer should still make complete sense,’ he says. ‘If you do know the work, then you may recognise some moments.’

But this is more than a dreamy mash-up; instead, Rusk has created a story of Helena, a 30-year-old modern, single woman shouldering parental pressure regarding marriage, and loving a co-worker who prefers her best friend. Eventually, her anxieties invade her dreams. ‘Her dream world and real world start to overlap, and her daily routine, friendships and family life start to fracture and blur,’ says Rusk. Eventually, Helena receives some spirit guidance and sets things right. ‘It’s about taking control of your life in a world that pulls you in different directions,’ says Rusk. ‘The only person who can make Helena happy is Helena.’

For The Dreamer, Gecko has embarked on their signature visual, physical, and non-verbal path. ‘We do work to a central “story”, but we [focus on] the metaphors, emotional journey and poetry of the piece,’ says Rusk. ‘We use shadows, dance, and a moving set, as well as live music and atmospheric light and sound to conjure up a place unique to this story, where Helena can go on the most exciting journey imaginable.’ But the real journey is for the audience. ‘We want them to think about their own love, their own lives – more than what we present in front of them,’ he continues. ‘If everyone has the same feeling at the end of the show then we have not done our job.’

See full details and book tickets for The Dreamer below.

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