What with the ever-moving advances in social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype, the world has become a much more attainable place. The click of a button can connect you from the comfort of your bedroom to almost anywhere within seconds. However, with around 196 countries and an estimated 6,700 languages in existence in the modern world, is it possible to form a true connection between cultures? What’s more, is it possible for theatrical expression to be the catalyst for modern social and cultural exploration?
Lumenis Theatre, established in 2006 by a group of international practitioners, aims to “challenge modern audiences” by reflecting “the world in which we live in all of its complexity, beauty and ugliness”. Their productions almost always discuss themes of diaspora, identity and one’s ability, or inability, to form connections. Lumenis Theatre’s most recent double bill, a reworking of Roy William’s original text There’s Only One Wayne Lee and Mary Mazzilli’s Magical Chairs, is no exception. What’s more, with this double bill Lumenis Theatre is set to become the first UK theatre company to perform at the Beijing International Fringe Festival as part of a London Beijing Connections programme. The plays will be staged both in London (30 August – 3 September at the Southwark Playhouse) and Beijing (September 2011), with the project set to be one of the more successful explorations of cultural exchange.
Magical Chairs is an absurdist-inspired exploration of displacement, whereas There’s Only One Wayne Lee is a coming of age play about two young lads from first wave migrant families growing up in 70s London. The two plays are intrinsically linked in their almost dialectical discussions about the struggle of multiculturalism, or more specifically, the struggle to fit in. One may wonder, in an age of comparative liberation and diversity, how these plays relate to a modern day audience, as opposed to what director Jonathan Man describes as the “1970s monoculture” of Williams’ original setting. However, Man reminds us that whilst, politically, society may have come a long way in the past forty years in terms of integration, “things are still far from perfect”. For instance, actor Alex Ross, one half of the two-man cast for both plays, describes the “great strength” in Williams’ writing and its ability to encapsulate “issues that never really die out”, such as displacement and friendship. Moreover, beyond integration, both Williams and Mazzilli’s texts express a great deal of social dissatisfaction and frustration that Ross points out is currently “relevant due to the recent UK riots”. Inadvertently or otherwise, the plays serve as an almost allegorical demonstration of the benefits of bonding, the increased success rate of collaboration and subsequent social necessity for connection.
With the two cast members, Alex Ross and Chris Chan, in their early twenties, Magical Chairs and There’s Only One Wayne Lee, although containing subject matter that producer David Albrecht insists is “accessible to all audiences”, are undeniably focused around the plight of the youth and their urge to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. Furthermore, when questioned about the two plays and their relevance to a modern youth audience, Man expressed a desire for the characters on stage to serve as “role models” for the younger generation. For instance, Man has adapted the original character casting of William’s text from that of two Afro-Caribbean youths to that of one Afro-Caribbean and one British-Chinese teen in order to inspire a wider cultural demographic. Man explains that he feels the “British-Chinese revolution hasn’t happened yet”, and by utilising the success story in Williams’ text, and indeed his own success story as a director of ethnic origin, he, and Lumenis as a company, can demonstrate to the “whole generation of British Chinese trying to get into theatre” that one can learn by example. Moreover, this concept of role models present in the double bill can be extended beyond ethnic struggle into a more general point. For instance, the focus on football and the discussion of various footballing champions can be noted throughout generations and cultures, leading the audience to question the necessity for youths to look towards a successful figure for inspiration and motivation. On a wider scale, the plays, especially There’s Only One Wayne Lee, invite their audiences to draw similarities between the production and real life, leading them to question who our modern day role models are, and whether they are an appropriate choice for connection.
As well as the incorporation of role models within the double bill, Lumenis Theatre uses other universally symbolic concepts in order to connect to a wider, cross-cultural cohort, something that one would imagine will be key to the success of their forthcoming Bejing Fringe debut. For instance, the most accessible aspect to Lumenis Theatre is its ability to express concepts aesthetically; one does not need to have a firm grasp on the English language to recognise physical struggle or, perhaps most effectively, the vast cultural symbol of football. For example, the two actors play up and down the traverse stage, with audience onlookers on both sides, and one cannot fail to notice the sporting insinuations. Moreover, the placement of uniform plastic chairs within Magical Chairs is something certainly a British audience can perceive as a reminder of regulatory school days, and is subsequently reminiscent of childhood struggle. It may be that the aesthetics themselves will be able to speak the universal language of movement and image to the predominantly Chinese audience of the Bejing Fringe, rather than relying too heavily on the provided subtitles to establish a connection between the actors and the viewers.
Realising that establishing a successful connection with audiences in Beijing may be a challenge, Man admits that the project will be a “learning curve” both for Lumenis Theatre and for the audience members themselves. The company recognises the uncertain outcome of its performances, with actor Ross confessing that he finds the prospect of the upcoming cultural task “exciting and confusing”, but is keen to be able to widen his cultural perspective by being able “to make comparisons” between the performance experiences of both London and Beijing. However, despite any fears or uncertainty the company, Lumenis Theatre seems determined that the project will be a success, with Mazzilli insisting that “the Chinese audience are more open to the contemporary”. She feels that they will gain more from the absurd, visual elements of her piece, Magical Chairs, than a British audience, suggesting that they will be more inclined to interpret meaning visually rather than intellectualising with the dialogue. For director Man, however, the success of the double bill is a slightly more emotional matter in that he sees the Fringe as an opportunity to “take the Chinese story home” and begin forming a bond between people of the same ethnicity but of varying cultures.
It is clear from researching and viewing the work of Lumenis Theatre that it views its work as a communication opportunity. To Lumenis Theatre, performance is the mouth from which it speaks the universal language of image to express humanity, the emotions that all demographics can comprehend. In such a cosmopolitan age, with new communities and ethnicities making themselves known everyday, should one not be trying to learn what makes one different and similar? Whilst the outcome remains to be seen, it is clear that the work of Lumenis Theatre and its double bill project is taking the first steps to establishing a true connection between the British and the Chinese stage. This could potentially be laying the groundwork for other theatre companies of other ethnicities to follow suit.
Magical Chairs and There Is Only One Wayne Lee, Southwark Playhouse, 30th August – 3rd September.
Beijing International Fringe 16th-18th September.
Photography: Elaine Wong