Lost in cultural translation, but it's a bilateral happy end
The Australian-Chinese co-production of Cho Cho is raising cultural awareness - and that's just in production. Photo: Sanghee Liu
IT WAS probably inevitable that the Australian and Chinese performers of Cho Cho, a confronting adaption of Madame Butterfly, would experience a clash of cultures before they took the stage.
Themes about colliding ideas of love, commitment and integrity have been deliberately amplified in a production that has been negotiated, directed and performed simultaneously in English and Chinese.
But they didn't expect to be lost in translation quite so quickly: from the moment the Chinese actors saw their costume and make-up designs.
They refused to wear the gaudy, exaggerated interpretations of 1930s Shanghai.
Actor Du He says she was surprised to find herself in a great fur coat, which was meant to signify extravagant luxury, but which she thought made her look like a Mongolian herdsman.
There were tears and protests on both sides.
''It is unusual working in a culture that's 5000 years old where everything is done by tradition and there's not a lot of interpretation,'' says designer Richard Jeziorny.
''The costumes were not outlandish, we don't have Churchill in a pink tutu, things that you'd do in Australia you can't.''
Producer Wang Ziyin stepped in to avert an actors' strike.
''The Chinese actors said, 'That's what you think Chinese look like: you think we're all comical and you're normal,' '' she says. ''I had to force a change, I really was a bully.''
After rounds of explanations and negotiations the costumes were adjusted but not discarded. Actors and creators earned each other's respect.
The four-day season opened on Thursday night and by Friday the glitches had been ironed out and audiences were proclaiming it a great success.
The original Puccini opera and the novel on which it is based, where the worlds of an American sailor and a Japanese Geisha tragically collide, carry an extra edge at this time in China, given the backdrop of maritime and military tensions between the three nations.
This collaboration between the National Theatre of China, the Arts Centre Melbourne and Playking Production is reset in pre-war China.
Cho Cho and her child are performed in part by puppets designed by director Peter Wilson, whose creations featured in the opening of the Sydney Olympics.
Daniel Keene, the acclaimed playwright, adds a brutal twist that transforms the submissive Asian victim into a powerful and disturbing heroine.
Cho Cho smothers their child with a pillow before taking her own life.
Keene was intrigued to find that what he had conceived as an act of furious, tragic revenge was viewed with more complexity and ambiguity by some of the Chinese actors.
''The Chinese saw a vision of hope because of the whole idea of reincarnation,'' says Keene.
''In a way her love and love for her child is preserved because she's taken away everything,'' he says.
''It's incredible. I find it intriguing.''
The production process, as much as the show itself, is designed to highlight and investigate the cultural collisions that occur as Australia and China grow ever more intertwined.
The politics of performing in a Communist Party-controlled system were perhaps helped by a heavy handed portrayal of Pinkerton, the arrogant American, which compromised the theme of cultural understanding.
But, as ever, they were difficult to negotiate. A stage manager found herself temporarily forced out of China because of a visa problem relating to her journalist husband.
Producers had to hold their ground after bureaucrats waited until after Friday's successful performance to demand that the ending be cheerful, not tragic.
It was fine to have a Japanese mother killing her child, as in Keene's original script, but not a Chinese mother.
''Everything has been done in two languages, with two ways of thinking, that's why it is so challenging and why it is so interesting,'' says Ms Wang, the producer, who says she finds herself thinking like a Chinese person in Australia and an Australian when in China.
''There are so many broken marriages, new businesses that immediately fail, countries that turn around and have war with each other simply because they don't understand each other's language.''
The producers are planning to bring the show to Australia later this year.