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The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola Theatre, review: ‘China from a Chinese view’

PUBLISHED: 17:00 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 17:28 26 April 2016

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer
. Picture: Nobby Clark

A scene from The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie Writer . Picture: Nobby Clark

©Nobby Clark

Are the Chinese inscrutable? Exotic? Alien? Or very like us?

Anders Lustgarten, who studied Chinese at Oxford and Berkeley, and lived in China for a decade, has written a serious attempt to understand and explain China from a Chinese perspective, rather than from that of a bemused Brit.

It is an epic piece, with echoes of Brecht, but more grounded.

Act one covers the communist revolution, as experienced by the inhabitants of Rotten Peach Village (the names, in this play, both of places and people, are marvellous), from the idealism and optimism of Mao’s grassroots revolution, through mistakes, corruption, greed and cruelty, to disaster and famine.

Throughout, the villagers suffer and struggle. Revolution, it appears, was the easy part.

In Act Two, the same villagers and/or their descendents live under contemporary capitalism, which is equally inhumane and insecure. Both regimes ruthlessly exploit ordinary people.

This may all sound sombre, but it is not.

There is irony, wit and spectacle; the characters are lively and interesting and the plot moves on apace.

However, in order to cover such immense tracts of time and pack in so many political shenanigans, the production has to gallop so fast that the audience is sometimes unable to savour the humour and subtleties.

Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the characters, there’s not always time to work out who people are and what their relationships to each other are.

The ensemble performances are top quality, with special commendation to Anna Leong Brophy as Lotus Blossom, Rebecca Boey as Horseface and Andrew Leong in the difficult and unsympathetic part of Xu. Director, Steven Atkinson, choreographs some memorable set pieces, supported by evocative sound (Giles Thomas).

He makes imaginative use of the Arcola’s eccentric layout using the different levels for different locations – sadly, not always visible. Lily Arnold’s basic set adapts well although more elaborate indications of place and time would be welcome.

And the props are too sparse to illustrate, for instance, backyard steel smelting or Landlord Zhang’s excessive wealth.

This unusual play brings up a variety of interesting and controversial issues concerning China, our own small island and humans in general. A world premiere which, I hope, goes further.

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie at the Arcola Theatre.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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