I have been a big supporter of the Shanghai International Theater Festival for some time, and have seen a lot of really good shows during the festival each year. This year, I have already seen one outstanding performance (which will soon be reviewed), and tonight saw the first real bombshell of a show I’ve ever seen at the festival. Sadly, it was Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a play that would/should have been a real hit with local audiences. To mess this one up came quite close to the zone marked “Unforgivable.”
The acting was not all bad, though there were a few technical problems, particularly the failure to manage the space in such a way that allowed the actors’ voices to project. Some parts were so soft that I had to rely on the projected subtitles (a Chinese translation) several times. This a problem that shows up in productions from time to time when using the big theater inside the Drama Center. It is, however, a forgivable mistake, and one I’ve overlooked in numerous performances in the past.
The real problem with the production lay in a series of directorial decisions. It started off badly, with music and film footage that were unnecessary and seemed to say a little too much, even before the action of the play began. (And the film and music contributed to the feel of the sound problem when the actors were speaking.) I’m not at all opposed to using projected images and sound in a staged production, when they are used well. This was not. It immediately made explicit what the play would have unfolded for us more subtly, had it been allowed to do its work on its own power and in its own time. Unfortunately, that opportunity was taken away from the outset.
To make matters worse, at three different points during the action of the play, a guy stood up from the audience and commented on the play with a very preachy message and tone. The first time, he followed George out, screaming his vitriol in the character’s wake. That was bad enough. The second time, it got worse, with the action freezing on the stage and this same guy standing up and making his comments directly to the audience. The third time, the action was again frozen, and the fellow walked up and addressed Joe. The character turned to him and seemed to be listening to the lecture / political rally speech / sermon for a brief instance. This was only moments before [ahem… *SPOILER ALERT*] Joe went and shot himself. I actually think the suicide would have easily had a stronger impact left on its own than following a shout-down by a non-character pretending to speak for the audience.
The worst of it was the content of the fellow’s message. He attempted to make the points of (or more appropriately, those he had extrapolated from) the play more explicit, applying them to modern day situations. Sadly, there was no nuanced treatment of those issue. They were simply placed together in one stream of invective that was not only out of place in the context of the play, but in the context of a troupe of guest performers talking about issues that included some that have occurred the country that is playing host to this festival.
After the show was over, there was a short dialogue session between cast and audience. With one exception, most of the feedback seemed negative. Both the director and the guy who had played the role of interrupting the drama with his sermonizing were rather high-strung in voicing their rationale for the choices they made. The director was adamant in her insistence that drama is not to entertain, but to educate, and so she wanted to insert these contemporary issues into the dialogue of the drama. The guy who had interrupted the action three times echoed her sentiments. I had just put my hand up to ask whether they didn’t think the members of the audience could be trusted to have made their own associations between the play(‘s message) and contemporary real-world situations. Just as I was preparing to say something, the interloper in the whole drama we’d watched said one last thing: “That’s just it! We need to do something! It’s up to us to change the world!”
Cynic that I am, I sat back in my seat and put my hand down. If someone’s out to change the world, I doubt I have anything that can change his mind about what happened on the stage during this performance.
[Note: One other brave soul did give it a last valiant effort, even after all this had been said. She commented that the director’s choices had left no space for the viewer’s imagination, and had robbed us of an opportunity to engage with the play as it stands. Though her point was valid, and was well-articulated, it seemed to fall on deaf ears.]