Sex, money and the world wide web in Shanghai: this weekend saw the premiere of Consumed, a play produced in a revolutionary new collaboration between Border Crossings, Shanghai Arts Centre and Tara Arts. A love story set in the virtual world and a visual spectacular, Laura Turner spoke to Michael Walling, the Director of this unique show created by theatremakers from the UK and China.

What is Consumed?
We devised Consumed in co-operation with the hugely prestigious Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre from China. We’d worked with them before on Re-Orientations (a play spanning the UK, China, India and Sweden, which ran at Soho Theatre in 2010), and their leading actress Song Ru Hui wanted to do another, more concentrated piece with us. So this time there are just three characters, caught up in a web of personal and business relationships, and attempting to communicate through new technologies. It’s got industrial espionage, language games and a very modern love triangle!

Why did you decide to create a play on this theme?
Because that’s the world we live in. Our lives aren’t shaped by cultural tradition or political decisions any more. Our lives today are shaped by the interests of trans-national corporations. The internet is playing a huge part in the shaping of this new globalised world, and so we wanted to address that. In some ways it’s quite tricky – being on the internet could actually be quite boring theatrically because people just sit and type. So we wanted to find ways of showing how these new technologies impact on the living body – and that’s where it turns into exciting visual theatre.

So it’s about communication?
Yes – it’s really basic to everything we do. On one level, all theatre is about communication, of course – dialogue between characters, dialogue between the audience and the stage. We are trying to push that further – deliberately setting up barriers to communication so as to make the art form move on.

The two main characters can’t speak the same language, though, surely raising the theme of our lack of communication, too?
Language is just one form of communication, of course, and in some ways the play is quite positive about just how much these characters do manage to engage with one another in the absence of a common language. But what we found, as we explored the technology and the lifestyle of these business people who are constantly on the move, was the way in which our world, which is apparently so linked-up, is actually isolating us from one another. In many ways, it’s a play about loneliness and the desperate desire to communicate that emanates from that.

The bilingual element of the production must come with challenges.
It’s fantastically, unbelievably difficult! But the difficulty is the point: we wanted to address complexity, and so the work has to be complex too. Our multi-media artist, Dori Deng, is Chinese but lives here, and she’s totally bilingual. Her cross-cultural, cross-media brain is like the meeting point where all the different strands of the piece come together, and I don’t think I could have done this without her!

Is the production cross-cultural in feel as well as theme?
Clearly modern China is key – and we’ve been very interested in the enormous cultural shifts that have happened in the last 30 years. The contrast between the China of the characters’ youth in the 1980s and today is very intense – it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to live through a revolution like that. In terms of theatre, Chinese performers are very Stanislavskian, very focused on the characters’ psychological journeys. My approach as a director leading a devising process is very different from that – for me the psychology is something which emerges once you’ve located the different things the character does in order for the story to unravel. What’s happening now, in the last weeks of rehearsal, is that these processes are coming together in a very exciting way.

How has the storytelling developed?
The way we work on our devised pieces is to have an initial development workshop, during which we create the characters and key storylines, and make some of the main scenes. Then there’s a dramaturgical period, during which we work on the script, create a structure and flesh it all out with more research. The rehearsal period carries on developing the work within that structure, so we can be really precise about the journey of each character, and how one event leads to another.

So what effect do you hope Consumed has on audiences?
I hope they will recognise themselves in it.  The struggles people go through to overcome the ever-more isolated existence of the modern world: the yearning to reach out and touch. I hope that will be very true to all our experiences today, and so very moving. There are questions they might ask as well: How can we work out a relationship with what will soon be the world’s most powerful nation, given that the cultures are so different? How do we reconcile ourselves with history? Has modern communication technology really brought us closer, or has it actually made us more isolated? What, as human beings, can we really share?

Find out more about Consumed and Border Crossings at

Image credit: Richard Davenport